Word Count 24,255
1st in the Modern Lancers (series story order)
Lancer Wild Life Preserve
The engine roar of two vehicles destroyed the nocturnal serenity of the Lancer Wild Life Preserve.
Murdoch Lancer, dozing at his desk, bolted upright hearing excited whoops over the sound of the engines.
Damn it! Weeks of petty thieving and vandalism had now escalated into car theft.
“Paul!” Murdoch prayed his manager hadn’t made it to bed yet as he yanked the French doors open in time to see the driver of the first vehicle gun the Land Rover’s engine, and spin a 180 on the yard, kicking up sod in all directions. The second thief followed the other’s lead, mangling the manicured lawn even more and followed the Rover’s bumper with suicidal closeness as they raced their way down the long sweeping drive.
Lights flipped on behind him, as Paul, with his daughter Teresa at his heels reached Murdoch as the departing vehicles swept under the Lancer arch.
“Car thieves, they’ve got the Rover, come on!” Murdoch ran past them to the garage housing all the Preserve’s vehicles
Paul reeled at the ramifications of the Land Rover’s theft. Here was proof that the vandalism Lancer was experiencing was not some kids out to cause trouble, but a very real threat that was escalating as the time passed.
Laying a hand on his daughter’s shoulder, Paul winced inwardly at her pale, shocked face. “It’ll be okay, honey, get back in the house and call the police.
A quick nod and long brown hair flying, Teresa turned to the hacienda. Paul sprinted to the garage and, hearing his name, caught the keys Murdoch lobbed his way. Both men knew that Paul’s night vision was better. They jumped into the Ranger, and as Paul drove the vehicle out he was relieved to see Teresa inside the house, phone in hand. Better yet, Maria was beside her.
Pressing hard on the accelerator, Paul steered the truck into a right hand turn, the faint dust of the other two vehicles giving him the direction he needed to follow. Beside him, Murdoch pulled out his cell phone and Paul knew his employer would relay the car thieves’ directions to the police.
As long as they could keep them in sight there was a good chance the police could catch them.
Coming into a curve, Paul tapped the brake. It felt spongy under his foot and unresponsive. Pressing down further he realized with a start that the brakes were gone. The car careened down the road, spitting up gravel. He grappled with the steering wheel, barely registering Murdoch shouting in the seat next to him. With a flicker of nausea, he realized they were going to hit the embankment. He clutched at the emergency brake in desperation. The wall of dirt came up too fast. A vision of Teresa flashed through Paul’s mind, but too soon there was nothing.
Murdoch awakened slowly, as if swimming toward the surface of dark water. Air was clogged in his throat and a whooshing sound thumped in his ears.
“Paul?” His voice was hollow; reedy with the effort it took to form words. He shifted, sending searing pain through his leg and back. Panic came all too quickly…Paul?
Scott Lancer was satisfied with how his evening was progressing. He found Barbara, a restless socialite with more intelligence than many gave her credit for, a most enjoyable diversion. A woman who clearly wanted to be diverted from the obligatory social function they were required to attend. At least the CancerCare fundraiser gave some semblance of propriety. And no one cared how long they stayed at the party, only that they wrote several generous checks.
Reclining on the comfortable sofa in her apartment, with Barbara’s lush curves pressed against him, soft strains of If Only for One Night came through the stereo. Well, Mr. Vandross certainly had it right.
He swirled his half-full champagne glass in slow circles, watching while Barbara removed her earring. With a sensual smile full of promise, she removed the bit of sparkle and dropped in into his glass.
Of course, it couldn’t last.
Startled, she looked toward the door and groaned, “Oh, please. That would be the ex-boyfriend.”
“Does the ex know he’s an ex?” Scott Lancer did not poach. He never found the need nor condoned such an action.
“It was a recent development.”
“A few hours.” Scott raised a brow; Barbara gave him an apologetic shrug.
The door rattled on its hinges as the pounding resumed with more force.
“Open this door!” Other male voices joined the ex-boyfriends’.
Scott couldn’t help the grin when a very unrefined curse left Barbara’s lips and allowed her to pull him to his feet.
“I’d love to continue this, but he has his friends with him, and I’m not in the mood to end this very pleasant evening with a battle in my living room.” She stroked his cheek. “And I like this face too much to see anything happen to it.”
Scott fought the sigh. A shame really. The rest of the night had looked so full of…potential.
Barbara pulled him to the French doors that led to the fire escape, and he allowed it until he realized he was forgetting things. Tugging out of her grasp, he headed back to the interior of the room. “My coat.”
The pounding continued from beyond the door. “There’s somebody in there with you, Barbara, and I know who it is.” By the tone of voice, the man’s testiness at being excluded had just ratcheted up a notch or two.
Scott took his time gathering up his dress coat and slipped his Blackberry into his tuxedo jacket. The apples looked appealing in the nearby fruit bowl and he plucked one out, deciding that he might as well get something tasty out of the night.
Really, someone should call the police.
Scott took one last look at her, all tousled hair and pouty lips. Bending in, he caressed her jaw line, then cupped her chin. Eyebrows rose when her mouth opened under his, hot and hungry.
The door being splintered from the other side registered, and with regret he left her lips. Saluting her with the apple, he grinned and took a bite of the fruit.
Scott nodded to the door. “As much as I hate to eat and run…”
Turning away, he slipped through the doors.
Three men burst into her apartment, breaking the doorframe, just in time to see Scott Lancer’s form-fitting coat tails flying down the fire escape. She touched her lips where they still burned from his kiss, then turned to face the intruders. It was a triple threat, or would be, if they had two brains to rub together. Roderick, Terrance and Jason.
“Stop!” yelled Terrance.
She chuckled. As if Scott was going to listen to him, because seriously, who ever did listen to Terrance?
Roderick flew around the room proving himself more of an idiot. “The other way. The other way.”
She waited it out until a frustrated Roderick turned his attention to her. “Well, Barbara, why don’t you explain this to me?”
“Sure, right after you tell me why you stood me up – again.” Not a thing that any self-respecting woman would tolerate, much less from a man who decided he had a proprietary claim on her because they went out a few times.
“It wasn’t intentional, Barbie. I lost track of time with the guys.”
Barbie? Did he expect that to make any points with her? She had hated that nickname since the second grade, especially with the inevitable comparisons to the Barbie Doll.
Stepping into his space, she pressed a sharp-tipped, perfectly manicured nail into his sternum. “You and your steroidal friends are fixing my door and I will be at the Four Seasons with your credit card.” She was delighted to see him wince.
The expense wouldn’t bother Roderick, but the idea behind it would. After her door was repaired, and the charges had run through on his card, Barbara would break up with the idiot. This was one half-assed relationship that had gone long past its due date.
She should have followed Scott Lancer out the window. That man knew how to kiss.
Picking up and brushing off his coat, Scott left through the garden gate and headed down the street. Whistling, he decided that the evening had been interesting—all in all. It was perhaps a little livelier than many of his past evenings of late. Not ready for it to end, he pulled out his Blackberry to see if anyone was in the mood for a game of poker.
He was startled out of that pleasant thought when a man stepped out of the shadows. Thinking of survival, Scott stepped back and raised his hands. The man didn’t react at all to his motions, calmly remaining where he was. The bland expression and non-descript suit providing no clues as to why this man blocked his path.
“You’re Scott Lancer?” His voice was as monotone as the rest of him.
Feeling as if the stranger already knew the answer, Scott inclined his head a fraction. “And if I am?”
“The son of Murdoch Lancer?”
Now that was a name he wasn’t expecting to hear. It appeared the evening wasn’t through with him yet. “So I’m told. Never met the gentleman myself.”
“Lawby’s the name, Pinkerton office. We find people.” The newly introduced Lawby handed Scott his card.
“Well, I haven’t lost any. So as much as I’ve enjoyed our little conversation…” He accepted the card to end the interaction and side-stepped the agent to continue on his walk.
Lawby wasn’t finished with either him or the conversation. “Your father wants to see you and he’s willing to pay for it.”
What was wrong with using the phone? Scott would have enjoyed the petty opportunity to hang up on the man. These days he didn’t think of Murdoch Lancer. Those childish dreams had long passed.
In spite of himself, Scott stopped. He didn’t turn around, but the agent knew he was listening.
“All expenses paid to California and ten thousand dollars for one hour of your time.”
Scott wasn’t sure if he felt insulted or incredulous, and he wasn’t comfortable questioning the agent about his absent parent. The stray thought that it would be less risky to play poker than meet with his father skittered through his mind.
Of course, that’s probably why he would go.
Johnny Madrid wasn’t satisfied with how his latest free-lance assignment turned out. Doing the layout for Bride’s Magazine was starting to look better and better all the time. But no, he’d turned that down in favor of this little south of the border vacation. He was well aware that this area of Mexico was volatile, and the rough rope binding his hands behind his back only enforced that fact. Kneeling on the ground with semi-automatic machine guns waving in his face, all Johnny could think of was the itch on his nose that he couldn’t scratch.
He didn’t want to think of Jorge forced to kneel beside him. A man, who ensured that once his family made it to safety, remained behind to make certain that the rest of his village was beyond the reach of the wannabe drug cartel.
He didn’t want to think about the blindfolded man kneeling defiantly before the makeshift firing squad.
Pleading for his life, the man’s words were cut off as he was brutally cut down. Johnny controlled his body’s reactive flinch at the sound of gunfire, but it was close.
They had almost made it.
Jorge muttered a prayer in a soothing cadence, and Johnny had to marvel at that kind of faith. Marveled, but accepted that the chances were good that he had taken his last photo.
Expensive shoes and slacks blocked Johnny’s view of the murdered man. Not a bad thing, but this particular bastard behaved as if he was spending a pleasant afternoon out on his patio. Johnny knew him only as Suarez. A cigar dangled from the man’s fingers, its smoke wafting into Johnny’s face.
”Get up you’re next.” Suarez motioned to rise with his other hand–the one with the gun. “I’m telling you to get up.”
Slowly, Johnny got to his feet by leaning forward and coming up on his knees. He shook off the old sombrero one of their captors had laughingly put on his head after Johnny’s hands had been bound.
He didn’t want to die, but felt worse that Jorge wouldn’t live to see his children again, and that his kids would grow up without their father. They had enough going against them as it was.
Lost in his thoughts, it took him a moment to realize he could hear the sound of motor. An old truck was bouncing its way down the pitiful excuse of road. The driver’s head was poking out the window. “Hold up there! Wait up there!”
The man whipped off the road, the small truck spitting gravel, and looked about the area. He picked out Suarez and addressed him, “I’m looking for a man named Madrid. Johnny Madrid. I was told he might be one of your prisoners.”
This was an unexpected, but most welcome, interlude from being shot down. Johnny took a step towards the driver. “I’m Madrid.”
“Well, finally found you.” With obvious relief the driver, the driver stepped out of the truck. His floppy jacket was wrinkled and travel stained, and he pushed his weathered baseball cap back on his head.
Turning back to Suarez, he spoke in poor Spanish. “Senor, it’s, ah, muy importante that you not kill el Senor Madrid. Savvy?” He pulled out a thick billfold from his back pocket. “La vida of El Senor Madrid is worth muy dinero.”
Johnny cringed as the man showed the gang the money again before asking, “Savvy?”
Suarez showed an oily smile. “Mucho gusto.” Pleased, he prepared to accept the money by sliding his gun into his waistband. Some of Suarez’s men gathered around him.
The driver handed the leader some cash. “That oughta do it.” Putting the billfold back in his pocket, he headed for Johnny.
Wary, Johnny watched Suarez as the driver reached him. “Why are you doing this?”
The driver cut his hands loose. “I’m a Pinkerton Agent. Your father wants to see you.”
His father? “You mean Lancer?”
“He’s willing to give ya ten thousand dollars for an hour of your time.”
Johnny didn’t have time to absorb that before he overheard Suarez and his men talking. He wasn’t surprised they were going to take the rest of the money they saw in the billfold. He thought the agent was unaware of their predicament until a gun was pressed into his hand.
They charged to the truck at a dead run. He scooped up Jorge along the way, feeling bullets kicking up the dirt by their feet. Somehow, it clicked into place. The agent went high and Johnny low, both guns firing simultaneously. The faintest flicker of irritation crossed Suarez’s face as a couple of his men fell down.
The Pinkerton continued to fire from behind the partial safety of the open car door. “Shall I tell your father you’re coming?”
Johnny pushed Jorge into the backseat. “For ten thousand dollars I’d even go to hell!” Besides, he needed to replace his lost camera and equipment since it looked like he was going to shoot those damn wedding pictures after all. He took one quick glance at what could have been and threw himself into the already-moving truck.
Ten Miles Outside Morro Coyo
Sighing, Johnny wiped his greasy hands on a rag and looked down at the worn out carburetor of his Jeep. The radiator needed replacing, too, and that wasn’t about to happen out on this god-forsaken, piece-of-shit for road, ten miles out of town. Hell, he wasn’t even certain that a radiator for this old model of Jeep was available. And since the other parts hadn’t been so easy to come by, he didn’t expect a radiator to be any better.
He should say good-bye to the old girl, but this vehicle had been with him a long time and he had a crazy streak of sentimentality towards it.
Slamming down the hood, Johnny resigned himself to the ten mile walk into town. He had just retrieved his duffle and slung the strap over his shoulder when he spotted a car headed towards him. Taking a chance, he stepped further onto the road to encourage the driver to stop. The brown Reliant screamed rental to him.
A blonde head poked out of the open window, and Johnny took a few additional steps to talk with the driver. “You goin’ to Morro Coyo?”
Slightly lifting his eyebrows, the driver glanced at the sign ahead announcing the distance to Morro Coyo. “Unless I’m lost.” The accent was decidedly east coast.
“You mind giving me a lift?”
The glance was brief, but Johnny knew when he was being assessed. “Sure. Put your things in the back seat.”
Johnny hesitated for only a moment. The driver was cautious about picking up a hitchhiker–he could appreciate that. “Well, all right.”
After depositing his duffle in back, Johnny slipped into the front passenger seat, smearing a bit of grease on the door handle when he closed it.
“Didn’t mean to mess up your car…”
“Can’t be helped. Besides, you really think it’ll make a difference?”
Johnny dipped his head, hiding a grin. “No, not really. Thanks for the ride.”
The driver started the car moving again. Johnny peered at the blond man from the corner of his eye, trying to do a little assessment himself. East coast accent, expensive clothes. What was he doing out in the middle of nowhere? When there wasn’t any further conversation, he resigned himself to looking out the window in silence.
Dillie’s Café was in that comfortable lull between the lunch crowd and the afternoon coffee clutch. Teresa appreciated both the quiet and Maddie, the café owner, who respected her need for privacy. Pleasant was the word that came to mind and Teresa soaked it up, at ease with the wait. A wait that was going on the second hour now, but she didn’t mind. Only it didn’t stop her from looking at the small red and white coca-cola clock on the wall. Scott Lancer was expected to arrive today, and she was to show him back to Lancer.
She worried for Murdoch and this meeting with his son. They didn’t have a good history, or any history for that matter. She knew her legal guardian was anxious to meet his first born, even if Murdoch didn’t show it.
The past several months had been difficult for all of them. The small pranks and mischief had escalated with the death of her father. What was worse, no one knew the reason behind it. They only suspected who was behind it. Police investigation was at a stand-still until the next incident occurred.
And everyone was sure there would be a next one.
A car she didn’t recognize pulled into the angled parking spot in front of the café, and she sat up straighter to get a better look. There were two men in the car, and she couldn’t stop the spurt of disappointment. She was waiting for one man. Waving to Maddie, she left money on the table to pay for a meal she had finished some time ago, and headed out anyway just to be sure.
Just outside the café door, she watched the two men. Six months ago she and her friends would have been sitting in the café looking through the window, studying the men discretely. Well, as discrete as fifteen-year-old girls gawking at a couple of good-looking men could be. Jenny and Sheri would have been all over the dark-haired one, Allie and Maria would have argued that the blonde guy was the one to watch. Six months ago, she still had a dad.
Teresa didn’t feel like that fifteen-year-old anymore.
Watching the blonde man stretch, she wondered if maybe this was the right man after all. Murdoch had said his older son was blonde like his mother. “Ah, Mr. Lancer?”
The blonde turned to her. “That’s me.”
The dark-haired man looked to her as he pulled a duffle out of the backseat of the car. “Yeah.”
The men looked at each other.
Did she hear right? “I’m sorry. Which one of you said?”
She had definitely heard them both this time. No way could she be this lucky.
The two men looked at her before looking at each other over the car roof.
A little giddy, Teresa pointed to the dark-haired man. “You’re Johnny.”
Nodding to the blonde man, she was sure now who she was dealing with. “Then you’re Scott Lancer.”
Shutting the car door, Johnny looked at Scott. “No, Miss. He’s no Lancer. My mother only had one kid and that was me.”
Scott narrowed his focus to Johnny. “Likewise.”
How had they been in a car together and not know this? Teresa smiled. “Oh, well we didn’t expect you both at the same time, but…but actually you’re right. It’s Mr. Lancer that had two.”
“Two… what?” Scott asked, sounding frustrated.
“Wives.” She tilted her head to the side, and her smile grew. Murdoch was going to be so surprised. “And sons. You two.”
Teresa couldn’t suppress the giggle. Scott’s look was one of restrained incredulity while Johnny looked amused. This would be one interesting drive home.
Teresa looked up at Scott. “Now that you’re here…um, both here, I think we’d better get going to the preserve.”
He turned to the Reliant.
“You can’t take that,” she piped up. “The undercarriage is too low to make it through the arroyos and up the hills. We’ll have to take the truck.”
The girl waved to a man in dusty cowboy boots and a striped shirt who was stepping across the street. She jogged over to meet him, ponytail bouncing. After talking together for a few moments, the man sent a wary glance over the girl’s head. Striped Shirt bent down to listen again, a broad grin appearing on his face. Whatever she had told the man, it seemed to diffuse the situation.
She walked back to them, twirling the car keys around one finger. “Luis needs to wait for the special feed. He’ll take care of your car.”
Scott searched her face and had a sense of sunlight and daisies. He also saw her youthfulness. A half-smile curved his lips. “You have a license?”
He stared hard at the girl.
She stared right back. Those big brown eyes would cause trouble for someone when she gained a few more years.
“Well, I have my permit. It’s good enough for this trip. And with you in the truck it’ll be legal.”
Scott looked at Johnny who shrugged. He turned to face Teresa and held out his hand. “I’ll drive.”
With a roll of her eyes, Teresa deposited the keys into his hand. Scott heard a snicker from behind. At least Johnny was amused by the girl’s behavior.
Scott snickered himself a few minutes later when they were ensconced inside the pick-up, with the exception of one Lancer. Johnny was sitting on top of the bags in the bed of the truck, his back against the rear window.
“Tell me, Teresa. You work for my father?” He looked in the rear view mirror and saw the black-haired head. “Our father,” he amended.
“I was born on Lancer. My father was the manager since the beginning.”
“Was?” asked Scott.
“He was murdered a little more than four months ago, it was last November. At the same time Mr. Lancer was hurt.”
“Murdered by who?” Johnny asked, his voice trailing above the road and truck noise through the open window.
“Mr. Lancer will tell you that. What he won’t tell you is… how much it means to him that…well, that you’ve both come here.” The impish girl they had met in town was gone, replaced by a serious, sad young woman.
Scott looked into the mirror again and this time was met by two guarded blue eyes looking back at him.
Teresa pointed to an overlook. “Hey, stop here for minute.”
Scott pulled off the road and saw…nothing, except the drop-off. He opened the door to stand on the sideboard and noticed Johnny was standing in the bed. The vista was quite a sight to behold after all. The house was nestled in the valley, bordered by mountains on one side and fields of green on the other.
Teresa sighed. “There it is. As far as the eye can see. The most beautiful place in the whole wide world. Lancer.”
Scott nodded. He heard a low whistle from Johnny as he looked around. He thought Johnny was impressed. He knew he was.
“Scott, Johnny? We’d better get going. Murdoch’s waiting.”
As they edged up to the main house, Scott saw a man standing on the white-adobe rooftop with what looked to be a rifle. When they reached the arch with a wrought-iron “L” imbedded into its beam, the man fired a few rounds into the air.
The closer they got, the busier the ranch became. The look-out shouted in Spanish at them. Scott couldn’t make out the words except for a few easy ones like “muchachos” and “andale” along with a name of sorts…Cipriano? The rest was lost in the hum of the diesel motor.
He couldn’t hear the words but he saw their effect. Men—and a few women—came out of the woodwork to see them, or so it seemed. Scott looked to his right; a large man walked out of a small cement building carrying a fox kit in his arms. The man stopped, nodded, and gave them a ferocious smile.
He wondered if the fatted calf for the prodigal sons could be far behind.
In juxtaposition to the hustle and bustle of the courtyard was the house itself. Scott glanced to the large picture window and saw a tall man with grey hair.
If he wasn’t mistaken, the man was Murdoch Lancer—watching them drive up—and judging from the severity of the man’s gaze, he figured the calf wouldn’t be coming any time soon, despite what Teresa had said to them earlier. The ten thousand dollars was starting to look like work and he had to remind himself it was Lancer who sent for him—them—not the other way around.
Hacienda Great Room
Murdoch had struggled throughout the day to concentrate on any of the numerous tasks he needed to accomplish. Everyday chores vital to the running of Lancer. Chores that weren’t done and those closest to him had picked up and kindly chalked up to grief or that his leg was paining him. Chores he had given up on, knowing that he wouldn’t achieve anything until Teresa returned home with Scott.
Duties he had fallen behind on since the moment he had requested this meeting with his sons. This time Lancer wasn’t enough to distract him and for the first time in a decade, he couldn’t fall back on the preserve for solace.
Murdoch spent a couple of hours in quiet solitude studying the framed photos of his wives. Frames worn from years of holding them, large thumbs rubbing the shine off. The photographs he kept tucked away in his desk drawer only to be taken out when he was alone. Catherine…and Maria…. Both lost to him.
The sound of the truck had him glancing out the window, and his heart lurched knowing the moment of meeting Scott was upon him.
His thoughts drifted to the one and only time he had seen his older son—the pain associated with it hadn’t diminished with the intervening years. With care, he put the photographs back in the drawer, and sat back in his chair in time for the front door to open.
His stomach twisted a bit, but he didn’t pay it any mind.
Murdoch saw a tall, light-haired young man climb out of the driver’s seat. Scott—looking so much like Catherine it took his breath away. The dark-haired man in the back seat startled him.
Murdoch gripped the arms of the chair so tight his hands ached. Johnny. The picture he had off the internet didn’t do him justice. He thought back to the other photos, tucked away in his bureau, and struggled to reconcile the rambunctious toddler with the young man pulling a duffle from the back of the truck.
How had his sons managed to come together?
He turned away from the picture window, his palms suddenly slick with sweat, and waited. Just like he’d been doing for too many years.
His sons stepped down into the room. Murdoch wasn’t even aware that he had left his chair until he was catching up his cane to walk around the front of his desk. There were so many things he wanted to say…
I’m so glad you are here.
I’m sorry I haven’t been there for you.
I’ve thought about you both every day for all the days of your lives.
I wish we weren’t meeting like this.
I missed you.
I love you.
All those thoughts he tucked away as he looked at these adult sons. Scott and Johnny had no reason to believe anything he might say, with years of no communication lying between them. He could only think of going forward, starting from scratch.
One day his fickle courage would make an appearance. Today wasn’t it.
“Drink?” As impressions go, Murdoch knew he wasn’t coming off well. Too much had happened in the last months, Paul’s death lingering most of all.
Scott took a step forward, his expression neutral. “No, thank you.”
Using his cane to point towards Johnny, Murdoch caught the wary blue eyes. “You drink, don’t you?”
“When I know the man I’m drinkin’ with, yeah.”
It was a dig and Murdoch accepted it and moved past it. He couldn’t help but think of Maria with Johnny acting so much like her, and felt a small grin crease his face. “You’ve got your mother’s temper.” His eyes swiveled to Scott. “You’ve got your mother’s eyes.”
Old, sour anger flooded Johnny when Lancer turned away and walked to the sideboard for his drink.
Johnny had spent far too many years being angry with this man and not having an outlet for it. He thought he buried those emotions when he’d buried his mother. The ten thousand dollar offer had gotten his attention, he admitted it. There was a part of him that knew this meeting was a mistake; he reminded himself that he was there only for the money. But something more was hidden in the deep recesses of his mind, something he wanted out in the open.
It didn’t stop him from egging the older man on. “You got something to say, Old Man, say it.” He kept his voice low with the barest edge.
Lancer spun about and studied both their faces for a moment before limping back to his desk, his cane taking much of his weight.
Johnny could feel Scott close by, neither of them moving as the determined man opened a desk drawer and removed two envelopes, placing them side-by-side at the edge of the desk.
“Ten thousand dollars for each of you.” Lancer waved at the plain envelopes before seating himself in his chair.
Well, this was what he was here for and Johnny wasted little time walking to the desk to pick up one of the envelopes. He didn’t even consider not looking inside.
“Maybe you better count it.” Lancer’s tone was dry, but Johnny couldn’t care less.
“I plan to.” He had no reason to trust this man and didn’t plan to pretend that he did. He fingered through the clean, new bills.
Scott had tried to avoid thinking how meeting his father for the first time would go, even when he didn’t tell his grandfather the destination for this particular vacation. It hadn’t stopped numerous scenarios from running through his mind, but none of them had come close to this.
“Come and get your money.”
Scott, drawn out of his thoughts, looked up and nodded toward the waiting decanter. “I’ll settle for a drink.”
“You’ll do as you’re told.” The order was gruff and commanding.
Stopping, Scott looked back at Murdoch Lancer, not able to stop the touch of anger bubbling up. “Will I?” He had no intention of letting this man determine what he will or won’t do. He was aware that Johnny watched them both.
“I want no favors from either one of you.”
And what would those favors be? Scott wished he had the barest understanding of how this man thought. Tugging back the anger, Scott quirked a slow smile then glanced down at the tiled floor before striding to the desk. “Far be it for me to spoil a family reunion.”
Scott noticed that Johnny had gone back to counting his money. He picked up the remaining envelope with one hand and slapped it against the open palm of the other. It had a decent weight to it—he didn’t feel the need to count it. Scott waved it at his father. “Thanks.” He tucked the envelope into the inside pocket of his jacket.
Scott remained where he was, waiting for his heartbeat to slow, waiting to gain some measure of control, however slim. “What do I call you? Under the circumstances, ‘Father’ hardly seems…”
“Call me anything you like. We’re strangers to each other.” Scott wondered if there was a hint of regret in Murdoch’s tone.
He kept his tone polite, if slightly on the ironic side. “Oh, no apology necessary…”
“You’ll get no apology from me!”
And given how this meeting had started out, Scott wasn’t the least surprised. Apparently, Scott had found the right buttons to push. Murdoch’s anger and frustration were out in the open.
Favoring his leg, Murdoch left his chair to walk around to the front his desk to face his sons, these two living reminders of how he had failed as a husband and father.
“If the air needs clearing, let’s clear it.” Murdoch moved to stand in front of his older son. “Your mother’s family didn’t approve of me from the very first. They thought she was crazy to take up with me. And maybe they were right. You were born, she died, and I left you in their hands. Period.”
Scott looked down and away from him. Goddamn it! A twinge of disgust poked him—he wasn’t handling this meeting very well. But it wasn’t enough to stop him as he looked at Johnny. “A couple of years later, I met your mother down at Matamoros…” He paused, thinking how to phrase the next and simply skipped the explanation. “We got married. Two years later, I woke up one morning to find her gone and you along with her.”
“That isn’t the way I heard it!”
“I don’t care what you heard! It’s in the past. Bad or good, right or wrong, it’s passed and gone.” He couldn’t talk about it. Too much had happened recently to dredge up the past with it. “We’re talking about now.”
Murdoch needed to focus on the present, and he couldn’t do that by looking at the reminders of his past. He walked to the picture window and gestured outside. “What’s happening out there, to this preserve…”
Scott spoke up, “The girl – Teresa – said you were having some trouble.”
Guilty with relief that he could talk about the here and now, Murdoch turned back to face them. Scott settled on the edge of his desk, and Johnny put his money away then tucked his hands tucked into his pockets.
“Last fall, someone stole our Ranger. My foreman and I followed him towards Morro Coyo. Our brake lines had been tampered with and we went over the edge of a hairpin curve. O’Brien was killed and I ended up with this leg that’s gone sour on me. Teresa brought you here using the back road; she won’t use the road her father died on.
“Since then, habitats have been destroyed, instruments stolen, small fires started and employees frightened off. Three months ago, I had sixty-two employees, now I’ve got twelve.”
So now it comes out, Johnny thought. The real reason he and his bro…Scott were bribed to come to Lancer. “Well then it’s the, ah, preserve you’re worried about, huh?”
Murdoch spared him a look before gazing back out the window. “I love this ground more than anything God ever created. I’ve got a gray hair for every good blade of grass you see out there. They’re trying to run me off this place.”
And wasn’t that a telling statement right there. Johnny decided his masochistic side was in charge. “Who?”
“They’re a gang for lack of a better term.”
“You mean to tell me that this gang can just come along and drive you off your land?” Scott gestured back to the window.
“They’re doing it. Since I was hit, they’ve closed down a couple of stores in Morro Coyo.”
”What about the police?”
“They’re at a loss. There isn’t enough evidence to bring anyone in for questioning. One detective was killed a couple of months ago, an apparent accident, but no one believes it and people are scared.” Murdoch headed back to the decanter and poured himself a drink before easing down on the edge of the table.
The old man hitched a breath then massaged his thigh after sitting down. “If things keep going as they are, by summer the Big Dog will own the town and this preserve.” Murdoch took another drink and seemed to savor the whiskey going down his throat.
Johnny took a couple of steps toward him. “Big Dog got a name?”
Didn’t this just move into all kinds of worse. Johnny had to be sure. “Day, Day Pardee?”
“You know him?”
“Oh, yeah, I know him. He’s a mercenary and he’s pretty good.” He didn’t stop the smile from forming. “Yeah, I’d say you have some kind of trouble.”
“Just how many men does he have, this Pardee?” Scott asked.
Johnny glanced back to Scott before paying attention to Murdoch’s response.
“Twenty or twenty-five.”
“That doesn’t exactly put him in a class with Attila the Hun.”
Johnny couldn’t remember ever hearing Attila pronounced quite that way before.
Murdoch took another sip of his drink. “You’ve got the floor.”
Leaving the desk, Scott walked over to the large map labeled Lancer Wildlife Preserve showing the property boundaries and topographical information.
“Well, it seems to me that you have a simple military problem here.” He circled his hand over the map. “One, find the enemy.” Scott looked back to Murdoch. “Two, gather evidence against him. Three, destroy him.” He finished and looked to them both.
Johnny laughed out loud, but it didn’t look like new-found brother was kidding with those fancy words.
“Something funny?” asked Scott.
Scott was aware that Murdoch was watching him. The truth of the matter was it made him uncomfortable. He hadn’t been scrutinized like that in a long while—not even by his grandfather. And as for Johnny, he’d like to wipe the smirk right off his face.
“Scott, he’s saying it’s not that kind of a fight.” Murdoch tilted his head towards Johnny. “But you could be wrong. I’ve got twelve loyal employees – only the best stayed. You two make fourteen.”
Taken aback, Scott wondered just what did Murdoch expect them to do.
Chuffing out a short laugh, Johnny seemed to have similar thoughts. “Now wait a minute. This is listenin’ money. Now all of a sudden you’re talkin’ about takin’ on mercenaries. Well, let me tell you somethin’, that’s extra. That doesn’t come with a free lunch.”
“I want more than that.” Murdoch took on a hard edge.
Well this was taking an interesting turn. Scott stood back as Johnny asked all the questions he also wanted answers to.
Murdoch’s tone held a challenge. “I want your arms, and your legs, and your guts.” He glanced at Scott with that one. “If you got any.”
Dear old dad wasn’t racking up any points as far as Scott was concerned.
Scott caught Johnny’s brief look in his direction, before his brother responded to Murdoch. “All right, say I come up with all these arms, legs and guts you’re talkin’ about. What do you come up with?”
Murdoch waved a hand towards the large picture window. “Everything you see out there in the preserve, multiple property holdings, sizeable investments, and the adjacent ranch with the finest campagneros y palominos in the valley.”
Scott watched Johnny get to his feet and go to the window.
Turning away from the glass, Johnny slid his hands into his pockets. “You wouldn’t mind putting that down in writing, would you? No offense.”
Curious, Scott watched Murdoch limp over to his desk to pull a folder off of it and offer it up to Johnny. “Will this do?”
Itching to get a closer look, Scott took a couple of steps closer.
“Agreement of partnership, equal shares to each of us, but I call the tune. Agreed?”
This was a gamble Scott was willing to take just to see how it would play out. He smiled and nodded his head in the affirmative
Johnny glanced at him, then smiled at Murdoch, shaking his head. He tried to hand the paper back to him, saying, “You didn’t sign it.”
“Nothing for nothing.” He accepted the agreement back from Johnny. “You’ll get your share of the preserve and Lancer holdings when you prove to me you’re man enough to hold it.”
“When’s that?” Johnny sounded a touch cautious.
“When you get the man that killed O’Brien and crippled me.”
“That’s the one.”
“Well let me tell you, Old Man, you want a lot.”
“Take it or leave it.”
And Scott had to wonder if it was truly that simple for Murdoch. He was about to ask some questions of his own when an alarm sounded.
Murdoch was up and headed for the door. “Fire, come on!”
Scott followed, aware of Johnny close behind him.
Chaos reigned at the scene of the fire. Two fields were ablaze, while men and women worked with shovels and buckets of water trying to beat back the flames.
Murdoch chopped at the vegetation in front of him, trying to build a small firebreak. Teresa stood to his left, a bucket of water in her hand and a worried look on her face. He shouted to the men working around him. “Let it go! The fire has too much of a head start…let it burn up to the ridge.”
The sound of the fire engines in the distance echoed another loss.
He limped past the burning embers to where Scott and Johnny stood. They were covered with Lancer dirt and grime. And not more than two hours after arriving. Both sons did him proud… trying to save the land—their land.
Teresa touched his elbow. “Isn’t there something we can do?”
”No, the field’s gone, honey. The fire department will prevent it from spreading, but that’s the best we can hope for.”
He turned to his sons. “Take a good look at it. It’s the third field that Pardee has destroyed. I told you you’d have to fight to hold on to this place. What do you say?”
Scott looked at him, his face made solemn by the soot smudges across his cheeks and forehead. “I’ve already given you my answer.”
Murdoch turned to Johnny. ”What about you?”
Johnny dipped his head then looked up at him, his eyes squinting from the leftover smoke. “I hate to see my property go up in flames.”
Scott’s eyes slid towards Johnny. “Our property.”
Murdoch wanted to laugh at the gibe but took a hard look around at his damaged fields instead. The smile never stood a chance.
Lancer Hacienda Kitchen
The fire guaranteed that the first formal dinner Murdoch had planned with his sons would not meet expectations.
The good china and silverware remained in the hutch and the everyday plates covered the kitchen table buffet style. Teresa and Maria had seen to it that the staff who fought the fire left with packages of food, knowing how exhausted they were. By the time they cleaned up, cooking a meal would be the last thing on their minds.
Stretching his leg out under the table, Murdoch wished for his bed to ride out the deep ache in his leg. He had done too much and knew he should be resting, but he wanted to salvage something of his sons’ first evening home. Sandwiches, sliced raw vegetables and dip wasn’t the dinner they had planned, but he appreciated the thought Teresa had put into the meal. Simple fare, but it was good food with homemade corn chips on the side.
Teresa came up behind Murdoch and he caught the freshness of lavender as she reached over his shoulder to pour him a glass of water. The only outward sign that another attack on Lancer caused her stress. Lavender was for difficult days, citrus was for happy days. Murdoch wondered if Teresa would have been so diligent teaching him the benefits of aromatherapy if she knew how much it revealed her otherwise hidden moods from him. Not yet sixteen Teresa had grown far too adept in that area.
Scott and Johnny entered the room, hair still damp from the shower, and Teresa slid her palm against his. He recognized the pills she slipped him, and Murdoch squeezed her fingers for her thoughtfulness. Teresa knew he hated to reveal any weakness and the need for pain pills qualified as such. She smiled as she took the seat to his right and set down the water pitcher.
As Johnny took the seat to Teresa’s right and Scott the seat to the left of Murdoch, he swallowed the pills. Teresa’s smile grew and he winked.
The ensuing silence might have been awkward if everyone hadn’t been so tired. Teresa picked up the plate of sandwiches, took one and passed the platter.
“I want to thank you boys for helping out today.” Murdoch knew his tone was on the gruff side, but he couldn’t seem to change it. He received slight nods in return.
Scott placed his napkin in his lap, dressed more formal in his button-down shirt and slacks. Murdoch wondered if it was Harlan Garrett’s influence. “Did the police or the arson investigators offer any opinions on the cause of the fire?”
“Right now they are looking at it as accidental. We’re in a drought, the land is dry, and wild fires are springing up on a regular basis.” A soft huff from his right brought Murdoch’s attention to Johnny who wore the more casual clothes of a faded t-shirt and jeans.
Johnny placed a sandwich on his plate. “Even with knowing the trouble you’ve had?”
“They are taking that into consideration.” Murdoch used the words they had given him. If his sons’ doubtful looks were any indication, they felt the same as Murdoch did about the likelihood of the fires being accidental.
Conversation ceased as they ate. Murdoch could see Scott and Johnny had questions, but the glances they stole at Teresa indicated they weren’t about to ask any while she was at the table. Murdoch knew it was only a matter of time before Teresa called it a night. She was tired and had stayed with them to give Murdoch the buffer he needed to get through most of dinner. For someone so young, she was quite astute in knowing what he needed.
Seeing her eyes drooping once again, he enveloped her hand with his large one. “Teresa, head to bed.”
“I’ll take care of things. Thanks for fixing us something to eat. I’ll see you in the morning.”
She nodded, left her chair, and gave him quick kiss to his cheek. She turned to Johnny and Scott who stood as she left the table. “Good-night.”
They returned her good-night and settled back in their chairs as she left the room.
Johnny wasted no time as soon as she was out of hearing. “Are you sure that Pardee is behind O’Brien’s death?”
“I’m sure. We’d had acts of vandalism leading up to it. The thought was that it was a gang staking out territory here when they couldn’t cut in LA. But why close shops? Why go after the preserve?” Murdoch took a drink of water, his throat still raw from the smoke. “We were hoping to catch them in the act. Now I realize they wanted us to know they stole the Rover, hoping we would follow them in the truck. I saw enough before we went over the bank, Paul was pumping the brake, but it went straight to the floor.
“It was an old truck, but well-maintained. There wasn’t enough evidence like a cut brake line or anything like that. Whoever did this wanted it to look like an unfortunate accident. The Rover was abandoned thirty miles on the other side of town. No fingerprints, still had gas in the tank, and a couple of dings.”
“Pardee works for others.” Johnny looked down at his plate, spinning his glass on the table.
“Then someone hired him.”
Scott laid his napkin on the table. “For what purpose?”
“Land. Whoever it is wants this land.” Murdoch rubbed his leg under the table, the ache reminding him of what was lost. “The preserve is prime real estate for development. We bought this land long ago strictly for conservation purposes. California suffers from urban sprawl and at the time, didn’t seem too concerned about it.” Murdoch looked to Scott. “Your mother adored the land and didn’t want to see it tainted. She loved the San Joaquin kit foxes, which are on the endangered list now.” Scott’s expression made Murdoch wonder what his son knew about his mother. That pang of regret was as strong as it had ever been.
Scott looked away from him to Johnny. “That’s the motive. I’m assuming Pardee is after money.”
“It’s what he does.”
“And you know this how?”
Johnny smirked. “Came across him about a year ago while doing a story. He didn’t know I was a photojournalist. He taught me a few things about his trade. Depending on what side you’re on, he’ll actually help people. But mostly the people who have the money to pay him don’t need the help. His crew is loyal. He’s made sure of that through pay-offs.” Johnny rubbed the linen tablecloth with his forefinger. “I don’t think Pardee is in this just for the money. He enjoys what he does.”
Murdoch was troubled by the cold expression on his younger son’s face and wanted to ask the reason behind it. Frustrated, he let the thought slip away unasked. He didn’t have the right to those questions yet.
“Then he knows you and will likely find out you are staying here,” Scott said and turned to Murdoch. “It’s late – we can talk about this more tomorrow.”
Murdoch nodded in agreement and eased his chair out, using it and the table to stand. The pills were taking the edge off the pain, but now he needed to lie down to give his leg a needed break from all the activity. Tomorrow would show him if he had done too much.
Scott started stacking up the empty plates. “I’ll take care of cleaning things up.”
Johnny gathered up the glasses and linen napkins. “We’ve got this. I’ve been known to bus tables a time or two. Good-night, Murdoch.”
Scott echoed his brother as he set the plates in the empty chip bowl.
Between the two of them they had made quick work of clearing off the table, and also made it clear that Murdoch hadn’t managed to hide anything from them. “Thank you. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Murdoch headed to bed accepting the hollow feeling for what it was. He had lost the chance of his sons calling him ‘dad’ or ‘father’ a long time ago, and he hadn’t invited such familiarity today.
The dishwasher hummed as it did its job, and Johnny towel dried his hands. He looked up to see Scott watching him. “What?”
Scott gave him a slight smile before crossing his arms and leaning back against the kitchen counter. “I wasn’t expecting you.”
Johnny grinned. “Likewise.”
Scott eased away from the counter, dropping his arms. “It’s been a long day. Good-night.”
“Good-night.” Johnny watched Scott leave before heading back to the great room. It was time for some research.
Scott closed his laptop and set it aside before sliding into the comfortable bed. He had known Murdoch Lancer was wealthy man – his grandfather had admitted that the man was lucky in his investments. His internet search revealed both Morro Coyo and the Lancer Wildlife Preserve had trouble for the past several months.
His searching also garnered him information on one photojournalist, a John Madrid. As a freelancer, his brother was well traveled and had gone into some very questionable areas of the world. What was surprising was the eclectic collection of well received published articles. Johnny didn’t have a particular niche for his work. It appeared he went with whatever interested him at the time.
Tired, he slowed down his whirling thoughts for the night. He’d find out more about his estranged family tomorrow.
Twenty-minutes later, Johnny shut down the computer. His – their – father was a wealthy man from the surface searching he had done. Somehow Murdoch Lancer had managed to keep his private life from finding its way online. Brother Scott showed up in the Boston Globe’s Lifestyle section – seemed he knew his way around the high life in Boston. Johnny wasn’t able to find out much about Scott’s time in the service, and would need to dig deeper.
For now, he knew enough to stay. A third was worth taking a chance on. Johnny wasn’t deluding himself into thinking that family was the reason to keep him there.
Scott stood in front of a mirror, partially dressed in an undershirt and pants. He angled his jaw for a scrape of the razor. Watching in the mirror, he saw the door to his room open.
It was Johnny—Murdoch’s other son. He was wearing the same black jeans as before but had a white shirt draped over his shoulder and a boot in his hand.
Scott finished with the razor and toweled off most of the shaving cream. “Well, why don’t you come right in?”
Johnny leaned against the doorframe and tugged on his boot. Once that was done, he reached for his shirt and placed one arm into the sleeve.
“Sleep well?” Scott set about unpacking some of his belongings to give himself a sense of staying. He had lived out of luggage and duffels enough in his life.
”I always sleep well.”
“Glad to hear it.” He walked past Johnny and opened the drawers, depositing the shirts and socks he carried from the suitcase. He thought about changing his Dockers out for the jeans he’d crammed into his suitcase at the last minute before leaving Boston, but decided against it.
“Well now, will you look at this…” Johnny walked to the small round table in the middle of the room and picked up the money. “They’re all over the place.”
Scott grabbed the towel and wiped his face, cleaning off the rest of the shaving cream. ”What?”
Johnny studied the paper money. “This, it’s a twenty dollar bill. Found one in my room too.”
Scott walked towards him, stopping on the other side of the table.
“It’s an old custom leaving money in the guest rooms. Saves the guest from asking for a loan.” Johnny held the bill out to him.
He looked at the money in Johnny’s palm and shrugged. “Nice custom.”
Johnny grinned. “Teaches you something…” He tapped the bill in his palm. “Teaches you to never pass up a twenty dollar bill.”
Scott turned back to Johnny after folding his towel. “Help yourself, it’s yours.”
“Well, thank you.” Johnny slipped the money in his shirt pocket.
”A third of it, anyway.” Scott looked at Johnny, not quite smiling, wanting to see what his ‘brother’ would do.
Johnny paused. “You talkin’ about that piece of paper he showed us?” He picked up a hat from the foot of the bed.
Scott winced. The hat had been a gift to Scott from an old friend of Grandfather’s, who considered California still part of the uncivilized world. The fur hatband and feather were a nice touch, but decidedly out of place—judging by the look on Johnny’s face.
His brother blew on the feather and brushed at it with his hand, while walking towards the mirrored dresser where Scott shaved earlier.
”Let me tell you somethin’ about paper.” He put the hat on sideways, looking for all the world like Corporal Agarn of F Troop. “You touch a match to it, and it burns right up.”
Scott continued to unpack, thinking about the partnership agreement to his father’s holdings. And about the fire they had been witness to in one of Lancer’s fields. “You don’t give the old man too much credit, do you?”
Johnny leaned back against the wall and managed to look insolent and relaxed at the same time even while wearing the goofy hat. He took off it off, tossing it into the air. “I’ll tell you, I don’t give anybody too much credit… it sure saves a lot of disappointment.”
Throwing the hat onto the trunk at the foot of the bed, Johnny picked up a small silver fame then sat down on the mattress. He let out a small whistle. ”Would you look at that.” He smiled at the framed photograph of the two men in military uniforms. Pointing to the shorter one on the left, he asked, “Hey, who’s this other officer all smarted up?’
Scott watched Johnny over his shoulder then turned back to the bureau. “It’s General Phil Madigan. I was in his unit.”
Johnny raised his eyebrows. “Very pretty.”
Scott walked around the foot of the bed. “I photograph well.”
Johnny laid back and rolled over the bed to drop his legs down on the other side. “Yeah, you are kind of a snappy dresser at that.”
Scott sat down and picked up one of his new boots, flipping it in the air.
“Hey, what kind of a unit did you say that was?”
The side door burst open and Teresa entered. ”Good morning, everyone.”
Her tone was excessively cheery for this god-awful hour of the morning. He’d have to find a lock…and soon. Scott rolled his eyes, flipping the boot back the other way, and dropped it to the floor. He stood up. ”Doesn’t anyone around here ever knock when they enter a room?”
Teresa gave a poor imitation of a pout, and flipped the end of her ponytail to her back. “Oh, think of me like a sister.”
Stepping further into the room, she saw Scott’s blue golf hat on the bed post. She fingered the ratty cloth hat and said, “Hey, Cipriano’s cut out two horses for you. He’s waiting in the corral.”
“Horses?” Scott asked.
“Yeah, you tell him I’ll be right down,” Johnny said.
Teresa looked at Scott’s hat again, and frowned. ”We’re going to have to buy you some new clothes for living around here.” She gave the hat one last pat and left the room.
“What’s wrong with my clothes?” he yelled after her.
Johnny stood up, walked to Scott to wave a hand at what clothes he managed to put on before being invaded. “Well, I mean, if you’re planning on stayin’ in these parts well, that just isn’t the style.”
Scott picked up his shirt from the back of the chair. “Of course I’m planning to stay.”
Johnny walked to the doorway and paused. Taking the hem of his shirt in one hand, he fiddled with the stitching. “Look, I‘ll tell you… um…”
Scott had glanced over his shoulder then turned to face Johnny. ”Get it said, Brother.”
Johnny looked up at Scott’s harsh tone. “It’s just this. What I got in mind is pretty much of a one man deal.”
Scott studied the rude young man standing in his doorway. Who was he? And where did he come from? Scott settled back, crossing his arms, not bothering to hide a grin. “Now, you’re going to make me feel left out of things if you’re not careful.”
Johnny gave him a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Better left out… than in a ditch, with ants crawlin’ across your eyeballs. That doesn’t photograph too well.”
Scott’s smiled at the underlying threat in Johnny’s words. At least he knew one thing about his brother… he was a real pain in the ass.
Murdoch Lancer had three passions: Family, the preserve and horses. Teresa sat on the top rail of the corral and watched Johnny put the third of those passions through its paces. The palomino, Barranca, was the flashiest of the lot. Barranca knew he was a handsome horse and enjoyed showing off. Teresa suspected the horse and Johnny were well matched since Johnny was putting on a fine show himself for all those in attendance. The cheering of the ranch hands reinforced that fact, but it was nice to hear. As of late, shouting usually signaled one disaster or another.
Johnny knew how to ride and he did it well. Murdoch had commented that Johnny was an experienced rider, but never said how he knew. Chances were Murdoch learned it through the internet. The detectives Murdoch hired gave him the bare bones of Johnny’s history, but once it was discovered that Johnny Lancer went under the pseudonym of Johnny Madrid there was no stopping Murdoch’s search for information. Teresa had introduced him to the joys of Google a few years ago and her guardian had been hooked ever since.
Teresa glanced over her shoulder with a smile at Murdoch who had just pulled the truck to a stop nearby. He stepped out of the vehicle, but remained in the open door of the truck, arms resting, folded over the open window. Expression serious, Murdoch waved to her and they both turned back to watch the show when the men let out a loud impressed shout.
Laughing at the antics of horse and man in the corral, Teresa looked over her shoulder wondering what happened to Scott. Striding across the yard was the man in question wearing pressed Dockers and a jacket, looking out of place amongst the jean-clad t-shirt crowd.
One thing was for certain, the Lancer sons were fine men to look at and Teresa appreciated the variety they represented. One tall, lean and fair, the other dark, compact and built—she had seen what was under that open shirt. The girls would be jealous. Teresa felt an unexpected jolt of glee at the thought, and welcomed the change from the numbness. Who knew cute guys would be the cure?
Scott leaned on the corral rail by her knee and she looked down, feeling better this morning than she had in a good long while.
“He’s really something, isn’t he?” She said clapping her hands as Johnny took Barranca through a complicated set of maneuvers with ease.
Teresa fought off the urge to slap the all too accessible blond head. “No, Johnny!”
Scott gave a nod and an ‘ooh’ leaving it at that. He didn’t appear to be impressed, but perhaps Scott didn’t understand the difficulty of riding Johnny was doing when he made it appear so easy.
Teresa rubbed her palms over her knees debating how to approach this. Men were so fragile in with their egos, and Teresa knew she didn’t have the finesse to make this better, so she gestured to the horse standing over by the other corral.
“Your horse is over there if you feel like riding.” Lily, a bay with the gentlest demeanor in the world was a good-looking horse, but not the most exciting one. Still, there was no better horse to start out on.
Scott glanced over at the animal, then climbed up the fence to sit by Teresa as Johnny rode over to them.
“Hey, Johnny, you and Barranca sure put on a pretty show.” Because credit should go where credit was due and Teresa knew it would make Murdoch happy that at least one of his sons could ride well. “That was wonderful.”
“Well, he’s a good animal.” Johnny grinned, swinging his leg over Barranca’s neck to drop to the ground beside the fence. He jutted his chin over to the other corral. “See that one over there – that one’s yours, Boston.”
“Yeah, I saw it. I saw this one as well.”
Teresa blinked as Scott jumped inside the corral and took the palomino’s reins from an equally surprised Johnny.
“Now what d’you think you’re doin’?”
Scott didn’t answer and Teresa felt a little jolt of fear as Scott walked around the far side of the horse to mount. She relaxed a minute amount when it appeared that the older brother at least knew how to correctly mount a horse.
“Hey, I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” Johnny didn’t have the same assurances and Teresa wondered if that was true concern in his voice.
Scott continued to ignore both of them and urged Barranca into a canter. The palomino picked up speed heading directly for the fence where three of the hands are sitting.
Oh no, Scott wouldn’t.
Oh, he would.
There was a whole lot of scrambling as the men dove off the fence and Barranca, rider intact, sailed over it pretty as you please. Teresa glanced over her shoulder to see Murdoch straightening, eyes intent on the pair now outside the enclosure. Teresa turned back in time to see the pair hurdle a small hay wagon to the hoots and whistles of an appreciative crowd.
Scott circled around and just as easily the pair were back inside the corral. Teresa clapped just as hard for this show-off as she did for the first. Lancers always had a thing for flare, but she’d save that detail for the Scott and Johnny when they were better acquainted with their father. Because that was all Murdoch she saw in his boys.
“Well…” Hands on his hips and a smile lighting up his face, Johnny looked up at Teresa. She could see he was also impressed.
Teresa grinned, well pleased. Both sons could ride. That was a time-saver. There were parts of the preserve where no vehicles were allowed. If Scott and Johnny stayed to help, knowing how to ride was invaluable. Another glance at Murdoch and she could have sworn that he was smiling just a little.
Scott rode over to them while Barranca snorted a few times to make certain he was the center of attention. Scott looked down at Johnny.
“You’re right, he is a fine animal,” Scott agreed, dismounting. Johnny looked down at the ground.
“Well, I’ll say one thing, Boston.” He looked up smiling. “You sure do know how to ride. Where’d you pick it up?”
“Oh, here and there.” Scott tone tossed off the question as unimportant, but Teresa wondered the same thing. That quality of riding didn’t just happen.
“You scared the pants of those guys. Didn’t he?” Johnny addressed the question to Teresa. She smiled in agreement and hoped Scott wasn’t offended by the attempt to pair him off with Lily. The small nod of acceptance Scott gave in her direction relieved her of that worry.
Johnny’s smile turned to something that Teresa couldn’t name.
“That doesn’t mean you’re ready for what’s to come.” Johnny was pushing Scott, and Teresa couldn’t figure out why.
“And you are?” Scott asked, patting Barranca’s neck.
Johnny grinned and picked up his jacket from off the rail. He strode out the gate without answering and headed to one of the ranch cars. Uh-oh, Teresa thought as Johnny pulled keys out of his pocket, he’s leaving the ranch.
“Where are you going?” Teresa was at a loss how they went from a fun moment to tension.
“I’m headed to town – see how far I can get on a couple of twenties.” Johnny grinned again and slid into the car.
Teresa looked to Scott as Johnny drove away. Scott was watching the car, but looked to her. “So, you said something about clothes…”
Shopping was good therapy, too.
Outside the Corral
One concern dashed, Murdoch let some of the weight slip from his shoulders. The regrets he shunted to the side with long practice. The boys knew how to ride and if they remained, it was an invaluable skill. There were areas that no motorized vehicles were allowed or the terrain prohibited it.
That they may share his love of horses, he set that aside as well. He didn’t know for certain and he was long past making assumptions about anything.
But his sons, they looked good.
Scott hadn’t planned on staying.
But there was a challenge to Murdoch’s situation that appealed to him and it sparked something within that had been dormant for far too long. So clothes shopping it was and Teresa was happy.
As they were about to leave, Scott saw the smile on Murdoch’s face as Teresa informed him of their plans. Part indulgence, but there was also relief. Murdoch’s craggy face lightened and Scott realized even more how hard the past few months had been for them both.
Murdoch had been named Teresa’s guardian per her father’s request. The loss of Paul O’Brien for both of them was still very much evident in the household.
Teresa was already motherless. To lose her father at such a crucial age was tragic. Murdoch was to be commended. The girl was grieving, but was surrounded by people that obviously loved and cared for her.
Scott envied her a little.
The Jeep would take several days before it was repaired. The shop had found the parts, but they needed to be shipped in. Johnny was surprised that the small town garage had managed to find them at all, and with such speed, until he saw the twenty-year-old sitting at the computer. Dave, the owner, grinned when he saw where Johnny was looking.
“My son, Mark, he’s the scavenger of the family, only he does it on a Mac.” Dave shook his head. “Used to be I thought he wasn’t interested in mechanics, instead he dragged this garage into the twentieth century.”
There was no doubt that Dave was proud of his boy, and the covert smirk Mark sent let Johnny know that Mark was well aware of it.
He left the Lancer car parked at the garage to walk around town. It was a decent size, yet had a small, homey feel to it. There were several “For Sale” signs on business properties, proving Murdoch’s point that Morro Coyo was in an economic crisis—or being pushed from other pressures.
Day Pardee and his men qualified as ‘other pressures’.
His attention was drawn to an agitated male voice and laughter. Following the sounds, Johnny stood across the street at the Buckhorn, a bar that had seen better days. At one time the place looked like it was done up real nice, but time and age had taken its toll.
Café tables lined the sidewalk and meandered back towards the alley. Seven men occupied the tables closest to the alley and their attention was on an old man, pressed up against the wall of the building opposite the bar. The grizzled man looked seedier than the place, if that was possible, maybe coming out from a long drunk.
But the knives sticking out of the wall by the old man explained his current agitation.
A burly man, his beard graying at the edges, propped his right leg up on the seat of a nearby chair and laughed. “See, I told ya, Baines, you couldn’t even hit the side of a barn.”
Baines pulled out a small knife from his vest pocket. “Bet you another drink, Coley.”
“You’re on!” Coley looked at the old man. “Now, I wouldn’t move if I were you.”
The old man was trembling against the wall. “Por favor, Senor.”
The men at the table ignored him and offered encouragement to the knife thrower.
Johnny stepped off the sidewalk to cross the street, not stopping until he reached the old man. He turned to Johnny, begging in Spanish, asking for the men to stop throwing their knives.
With a gentle hand, Johnny pulled the elderly man out of the alley and into the street, encouraging him to walk away. Johnny made sure he stumbled off before turning back to the group seated at the tables.
Johnny didn’t recognize any of them, but he did recognize men who were used to doing what they wanted and getting away with it.
Baines gestured to him with the pointed end of his weapon. “Just what do you want?”
Johnny’s chin tipped up. “You’ve got bad manners.”
Baines laughed while a man in a blue jacket asked, “You gonna teach us some?”
Johnny met his gaze. “Maybe.”
Coley shifted in his seat. “Wexler, I do believe we got us a tough guy here.”
“Let’s see how long that lasts.” Baines took a step closer to Johnny.
“I wouldn’t.” This voice came from inside the bar before a man stepped into the doorway.
Johnny smiled and nodded. “Day.”
Pardee offered up a slight smile. “Long time, Johnny Madrid.”
Still grinning, Johnny glanced down before looking back. “Yeah, long time.”
”Care for a drink?”
“Yeah, sure.” Johnny headed inside the dark bar, threading his way through the men still sitting at the table.
Pardee put a hand on his chest, stopping him from entering. “Madrid, were you lookin’ for me?”
He met Pardee’s gaze just inches from his own. Day had a scar on this forehead that Johnny didn’t remember seeing before. Figuring honesty was best in this situation, he glanced back at the men watching them, and said, “No, but I had a feelin’ I’d find you.”
Pardee let his hand fall away from Johnny’s shirt and they both entered the bar.
On the way to Morro Coyo
Scott insisted on driving. Teresa was more than capable, but he admitted – albeit only to himself – that the guy in him was just not comfortable being chauffeured by a fifteen-year-old-girl.
Teresa didn’t seem to mind as long as they took the back way into town and Scott figured that was little enough to do. He wondered what it would take for her to drive that road again.
Scott had to admit Teresa was right. He hadn’t packed enough of the right clothes for this trip. It was easier to go along with her idea of heading into town to pick up a few things he would need, rather than arguing he could send for his own belongings. Although no one in Boston knew where he was and he planned to keep it that way as long as possible.
Harlan Garrett would blow a fuse if he knew Scott had made the trip to see his father. His grandfather never had much to say about Murdoch Lancer and what he did say couldn’t ever be considered flattery.
“Scott, where’d you learn to ride like that?” Teresa’s query shook him out of his thoughts and he glanced at her with a smile.
“A few years of riding lessons.” At least five years. “The instructors told me I had a natural affinity for it.”
“I’ll say.” Teresa, to his relief, went off on another tangent. There was no way in hell he would ever admit to begging his grandfather for riding lessons so he could be a cowboy. At a young age Scott had had a romanticized notion of Murdoch Lancer’s ranch, and in case his father ever came for him, he had wanted to impress the man with his riding skills.
Foolish dreams at best, and yet he did love riding and excelled at it. There were more than a few ribbons won in competitions tucked away in a box somewhere.
That competitive edge showed itself today and Scott had enjoyed himself.
“We’ll go to Mr. Baldomero’s store. It isn’t big like a department store, but he carries the best things. He’s reasonable and doesn’t carry cheap, crappy stuff.”
Teresa’s disgusted tone drew him out of his own thoughts. “No cheap, crappy stuff. Got it.”
That brought a smile out of her and Scott was glad to see it. After hearing about Teresa’s loss, he questioned whether he had been better off never knowing his mother… or his father for that matter. Now having met his father, Scott didn’t want to admit that he was feeling a little lost. He felt decidedly…undecided, about his father. A strange mix of not enough feelings when meeting the man clashing with all the emotional baggage he managed to carry around for most his life.
He shunted aside those thoughts for now.
And as for Johnny—that was something entirely different and he wasn’t quite ready to go there.
Morro Coyo Bar
Johnny stepped inside the bar, letting his eyes adjust to the dimmer inside light. Day followed close behind him.
Pardee walked over to the bar and picked up a glass. ”John, I heard you got yourself killed down in Mexico.”
Johnny saw another man entering the bar; this one had some Navajo in his background. The Indian was patting a bulge in his tattered overcoat. He could only guess it held nine millimeter or some other handy weapon.
He tipped his head up and chuckled. “Yeah, almost.” He moved to a ratty-looking table and sat down. It already had the makings of one fine party with glasses, a bottle of Tequila, saltshaker, and a bowl of limes.
“Why? Some kind of drug war?”
Johnny picked up a bottle, contemplating it for a moment. ”Yeah, something like that.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Indian taking up a position near the bar, watching them.
Pardee put down the glass on the table, the audible thud piercing the quietness of the bar. “Do any good?”
Johnny glanced over his left shoulder to look at the Indian. No expression there. And no indication of what exactly was going down in Morro Coyo, at least not yet. He turned back to face Day. Smiling, he took the stopper off the bottle and poured out a drink for him. He shrugged. ”I met some nice people.”
Pardee raised an eyebrow. “No money?”
Johnny poured himself some tequila, watching the clear liquid tumble into the glass. “No… turned out they didn’t have any,” he said, laughing,
Pardee looked thoughtful for a moment then dug through the limes for the biggest one he could find. He ran a finger along the side of his glass. ”Plenty of money here, Johnny.”
Johnny found his own lime and took a bite, resisting the urge to curl his lips. “Yeah… that’s what I hear.”
Pardee leaned back in his chair. “Well, what is your business here?”
“Day, I’m just lookin’.”
“For your best shot.”
Johnny grinned. “Something like that, yeah.”
“Well, you’ve found it. Now I can use you, boy.”
He didn’t want to think what that might entail; Day Pardee was a poor risk to get involved with—always was and always would be. “Uh… you let me think about it.”
The older man leaned forward, his voice whisper soft, “Hey… you ain’t already tied up with somebody else, are ya?”
“No… I said I’d think about it and I will.”
“Well, take your time, John.”
Pardee licked the lime and salt off his fingers and got up to walk to the bar. Tequila!” he said, clapping his hands, “bueno!”
The barman nodded and turned around to pick over the bottles lining the mirror at the back of the counter.
”No, not that one. Pour me one from La Negra, amigo. Pronto!”
The bartender’s eyes turned saucer-big and he pushed a glass toward Pardee then fetched the bottle from the shelf.
Pardee turned around and leaned against the bar with one elbow. He lifted the glass to the light and studied it. “They say this shit is filtered through birch charcoal and passed through a sand of crushed diamonds.” He took a sip and shrugged. “Maybe I’ll just stick with the plain old agave. Remember the mezcal we got down in that back alley of Mexico City?”
Johnny reclined back in his chair, one hand curled around his glass, and smiled.
Scott parked and cut the engine. Looking around, he spied a car that looked suspiciously like the one Johnny was driving. He pointed toward the Auto Repair shop. “The Jeep… isn’t that the one Johnny was driving?”
Teresa shielded her eyes from the sun. “Yeah, I think so…”
As he looked again, his attention was drawn to the six tough-looking men sitting outside the bar across the street. And, it seemed, they were looking at him, too. Laughing and pointing—it was small town hospitality at its finest.
A voice called out. “Senorita Teresa!”
A smile bloomed across Teresa’s face and she waved to the gentleman standing outside the general store.
Scott started to roll up the windows but was stopped by Teresa.
“Oh, we don’t close the windows here, it’s too hot. The dashboard’ll melt.”
“How do you fend off people who want to steal your car?”
“You’re kidding, right?”
He shook his head.
She looked at him with sympathy, like she was trying to explain something to a very slow child. “Well… this is Morro Coyo, Scott. Everybody knows everybody.”
“That’s it? Just ‘everybody knows everybody’?”
She turned her sunny smile back on. “Uh-huh, you got it. Now let’s go in. I’m dying to get you some new clothes.”
Scott got out of the car and set the car alarm. He shook his head and clicked it back off. “Haven’t you ever heard of sun visors?” he muttered. Putting a hand to the small of his back he straightened, working out the kinks. He cast one last glance at the men across the street. “I’m glad I can be your pet project, Teresa…” Turning back around he found his words were wasted since she was already down the street. He hurried to catch up.
The man in front of the store was gesturing to them, waving them to the entryway. “Por favor, Senorita! Come in, come in.”
Teresa leaned forward and placed a hand on the man’s sleeve. “Don Valmo, this is Scott Lancer. We’ve come to shop.”
“Welcome, Senor, please, this way.” Don Valmo stepped to one side and held the door open.
“Thank you… Senor,” Scott said, trying to roll his ‘r’. Not counting the ones associated with various swear words, he actually knew five Spanish words. And he had a feeling he would need all of them—swear words included.
“Yeah, that bottle of mescal was almost as sweet as that Senorita you were with, Johnny. What was her name anyway? Juanita?”
“Alida, Day. Her name was Alida.”
Johnny watched as the bearded man came into the bar and went to Pardee, tapping him on the shoulder.
“Hey, that girl from Lancer just drove in. Got a dude with her, too… ain’t ever seen him around here before.”
Day sent Johnny a look. “Coley, go lean on him a little – find out who he is.”
Coley smiled. “Oh, yeah. Be my pleasure, Day.”
Johnny rocked in his chair a little. The ‘dude’ could only be Scott.
Pardee brought back a bottle and set it on the table. He leaned down, rough hands splayed against the hard surface of the table.
“Now don’t take too long to make that decision, John.”
Johnny reached for the bottle and looked at the label—it was mescal.
Tapping the table with one finger, Pardee stood up straight. “You might miss all the fun. See ya around?”
“Yeah, sure, Day.” Johnny watched him leave then picked up the bottle and poured himself another drink.
Mr. Baldemerro’s Store
“This will never do.” Scott looked into the mirror and shook his head. The cowboy hat he was trying on was a size too big. It sat low over his eyes, reminding him of all those Bonanza reruns he’d seen as a kid. Weren’t gunfighters supposed to wear their hats like this?
“Aah… perhaps this one, Senor,” Mr. Baldemerro said.
“Thank you, I’ll try it.”
“Si, Senor. I am honored to have the son of Mr. Lancer come to my store.”
Scott looked at the hat, running his hand along the silk lining. Placing it on his head, he studied himself in the mirror. “Senor, you might ask Miss Teresa what else she thinks I need to be properly dressed out here.”
He glanced around the store. It was medium-sized and compact with merchandise stored in a neat fashion on shelves and hooks. Teresa stood beside the mirror, speaking to Mr. Baldemerro.
Scott grinned. She was excited, gesturing with her hands. “Well, he needs everything… some jeans, a jacket and some work shirts.”
Teresa touched Scott’s arm and continued speaking, “And don’t worry, I’ll pick out some cool stuff for you.” She turned to the storeowner and pointed to the back of the store by the coats. “Come on, Mr. Baldemerro.”
“Si, Senorita, whatever you want.” He walked past Scott and around the post, following her.
The door to the store jangled open.
Teresa turned around and sent him a speculative look. “I’m not quite sure of his size.” A smile broke out as she looked him up and down. “But whatever you have it’ll have to come in ‘tall’.” Her hand flashed in the air. “Well, I’m sure we can figure it out.”
Mr. Baldemerro nodded, swooped up by Teresa’s enthusiasm. “Oh, but of course, for the son of Mr. Lancer, we shall find the best.”
They both disappeared into the dressing room area.
Scott turned back to the mirror, chuckling a bit. Teresa was a whirlwind; Murdoch had his work cut out for him. His smile faltered. Murdoch…
The men walked up to the hat table, interrupting his thoughts. Scott recognized them as two of the men who sat outside the bar. The one in the suit was remarking to the fat one.
“Hey, Coley, he’s Lancer’s son. What are we supposed to do again?”
Coley tipped his head toward Scott. “Just shut-up, Wexler.”
Scott ignored the men and tried on the hat. If he had to wear cowboy regalia, this one wasn’t too bad. He took it off and picked up another from the table. As he did so, the fat man moved forward and snatched it out of his hands.
“I was lookin’ at that hat, Mister.”
The older man in the suit—Wexler—circled around the table to stand behind Scott.
He exhaled and gave a half-smile. “If you say so.” Scott placed the hat he was holding down on the table and started to move to his right.
Coley swung out an elbow, catching him in the chest. Scott spun around to look at him. Up close the man’s face showed the ravages of a life lived hard. Coley ignored Scott, removing his own hat and trying on the new one in front of the mirror. Wexler stood still, watching how the events were playing out.
“Am I bothering you?” Scott asked.
Coley licked his hand and smoothed his hair behind his ear before retrying the new hat. “Not yet, Mister.”
Scott reached for a hat on the far side of the table. Coley whipped around to face him. “Oh, I was gonna look at that one too.”
The hat was already in Scott’s hand. Tired of small town hicks trying to make trouble, he raised his left hand in warning. “Not this time, friend.”
He shot a glance to Wexler, then moved to the mirror. “One side plea…”
Coley didn’t budge. Wexler did move, and boxed him in between the mirror and Coley. The fat man leaned against a post, laughing. He was trapped between them. It was unpleasant affair, especially crammed in beside the man’s ample belly.
Coley smiled, showing a few spaces where there should have been teeth. “Are… are you talkin’ to me, friend, huh?”
Scott smiled back then looked down at the hat in his hand and pointed with it. “Well, where I come from, there’s two ways,” he said, holding up two fingers, “to settle this kind of a situation.”
“Hm. Fancy that, Wexler. The man says he knows somethin’.”
Scott looked down at the hat still in his hand. “Yeah. And one is…”
Knuckles bunched and hard, Scott hit Wexler in the kidney, sending the man crashing against the wood-burning stove exhibit. He dodged right to take a swing at Coley. His fist struck out, skimming Coley’s chin, throwing him against the counter. The fat man went down, scattering Kleenex boxes and tape dispensers.
Wexler staggered to his feet, clutching his back, a fire burning in his eyes. He swung in a wild arc. Scott ducked for a low jab and Wexler went over the table, knocking it to the ground.
He caught movement near the coat aisle. Teresa and Mr. Baldemerro had come from the dressing room. Teresa yelled out as only a fifteen-year-old girl can, “Stop it, stop it!”
Distracted, he turned to find Coley rushing him like a charging bull. He hit Scott hard, knocking the wind out of him. Coley grabbed his arm and shoulder and tossed, sending Scott sailing over the counter. He hit the wood and rolled off the end.
A door creaked open somewhere in the back of the store. Coley called out, “Hey, Baines, this fella is givin’ us a little trouble.”
A bulldog of a man with no neck, Baines walked towards Scott and grasped his shirt, pulling him upwards. Scott threw up his arms to protect his chest, but Baines’ fists were rock hard and unrelenting. He landed a solid blow to Scott’s chin, driving him back into the waiting arms of Coley.
Coley gripped Scott’s arms and pulled backwards. Fire skimmed along his shoulders and chest. He stepped backwards into the big man’s belly and slammed him against a post. Coley’s arms dropped, giving him time to twist around, coming from below with a powerful uppercut that folded fat boy in half.
He heard an odd jabber of Spanish and English. It was Mr. Baldemerro and Teresa. The owner had his hand on Teresa’s arm. He let go to gesture to his cluttered showroom. “My store! Look what they are doing to me.”
Teresa took the advantage—smart kid—and darted out the door, ponytail bobbing. The shop owner looked horrified, calling out to her, “No, please! There is trouble out there…”
There was trouble in here. Baines came at him with a nickel-plated shovel and swung it high over his head. Scott ducked and the shovel whistled past his cheek to slam into the post behind him. Instead of backing away, Scott turned sideways, bringing him in close enough for a solid right hook to the man’s chest. He tucked his elbows and struck again, then turned his attention to the man’s big nose.
He’d just found Baines’ weakness.
A groan escaped Baines’ mouth and his hands reached for his face. Scott planted a foot and hooked a right into his cheek, glancing off the man’s nose. The man teetered.
Scott hovered over him, his fists burning, his ribs aching and the side of his face raw. But at least the fight was over.
He missed the fat man getting to his feet. Coley and Wexler tag-teamed and both lunged for him.
Johnny sat in front of the bar looking toward the building across the street. Scott and Teresa had been in there a while. So had Pardee’s men. He tapped his fingers against his thigh, wondering exactly what was going on within the store’s walls.
The door to the store slammed back against its hinges and Teresa ran out. “Johnny! Johnny!”
He started and took his foot off the old barrel in front of him. Her voice took on the shrill pitch of someone who was terrified, but there was something else….
She skidded to a stop in front of him and pointed back to the store. “Johnny, it’s Scott!”
He reclined back in the chair. “Well, that figured.”
“Aren’t you gonna help him?” And there it was. Teresa was pissed.
He propped his foot back on the barrel. “Nope.” The single word held a world of authority studded with a barbed edge.
Teresa shook her head and drew a hitching breath. “But…” She looked at him in puzzlement then ran back to the store.
He eased back into the chair again and watched.
Scott saw he was headed for the plate glass window and tucked his head. It broke on impact and he tumbled through it, crashing to the ground. He spun over and over, coming to a teeth-rattling stop against the yellow curb. He struggled to his hands and feet, then fell back, his fingers clawing the hard asphalt.
He heard his name being called, from a long ways away it seemed. It was Teresa.
“Scott, are you all right?”
Bent and hurting, Scott made another effort to haul himself up straight. He managed to get to his knees this time.
The men were just exiting the store with Coley taking the time to tuck in his shirt. Baines walked behind Coley, holding his nose with one hand and wiping the blood off his shirtfront with the other. Wexler followed both of them, limping and looking dazed.
Teresa bent down to help him up, stopping for a moment when the three of them passed by. “Here, let me help you to the car.”
Still breathless, getting to his feet seemed almost an insurmountable task, but he made it—with Teresa’s help. His tongue darted out to taste the tang of blood from his cut lip. His eyes wandered over to the bar, where his brother sat: watching the entire episode. He felt a surge of anger and… disappointment.
Teresa looked up at him, concern evident in her eyes. He straightened and patted her hand that was still clenched around his wrist. He tipped his head toward the store. “No, Teresa. The car can wait. I came to buy some clothes… and some clothes I’ll buy.”
Day watched as Astidi turned from the pond and wiped his hands down the front off his worn coat and wondered at the fastidiousness of the Indian, or was it Native American these days? Political Correctness was a rare concern, but Day had inquired of the Indian what Astidi meant and laughed himself sick when he learned of the answer: Hammer.
Since Day was nursing a hangover and a bruised jaw having taken the right cross Astidi had thrown at him, Hammer was well suited. Felt like his jaw had been hit by one and it was only the fact that Pardee had been falling sideways at the time that saved it from being broken. Just a stupid drunken fight, but Astidi had joined their merry band afterwards. It was kind of amazing where you could find good help.
Day was chewing on a sunflower seed, contemplating the meeting with Johnny Madrid in Morro Coyo of all places, when the sound of an engine caught his attention. He remained in his comfortable lean against the boulder and watched as Coley strode down the slope to him. He didn’t bother to hide the smile. “Who stepped in your face, Coley?”
Coley rubbed at his mouth looking reluctant to answer and Pardee felt his amusement grow. On his left Wexler’s tie was undone and Baines looked rumpled, but not the just rolled out of bed rumpled.
Coley glanced at Baines. “Well, we… we leaned on him a little. Just like you said.”
Seeing the bruises, Day felt some sympathy. “But he leaned back?”
Wexler nodded. “Yeah. He’s Lancer’s kid.”
Shit. That wasn’t news he wanted to hear. Looking down at the ground he chewed on the sunflower shell, pulverizing it, and walked over to the fire Astidi tended. The Indian could throw together meal like no one else could.
Day blew out a breath. “The old man, he’s gettin’ some help, huh?” He crouched beside the fire.
“Yeah… you know, that must mean that he’s hurtin’.” Coley followed and crouched beside him with Wexler and Baines trailing behind as always. Day spit out the remains of the shell. “Could also mean that he can get more help.” Lancer was a tough target and those that worked with him weren’t any easier to shake. “I think we set just about enough fires for now-“
Day rose to his feet. The men had gathered close and he would have laughed as the mental picture of a hen and her chicks came to mind, but then he’d have to explain himself. While he led these men he wasn’t so crazy as to call them chicks.
“Pack it up! We’re movin’ out.”
Baines grinned. “We’re finally gonna hit Lancer?”
Day popped another sunflower seed in his mouth and chewed. “Well, that was the plan, we’re just gonna move it up a little, huh?” He tapped Baines on the stomach.
Coley grimaced. “Now wait a minute, Day, wait a minute. Now look, the walls of that house are pretty thick. And some of those guys may know how to shoot back.”
Coley was always thinking, but then so was he. “Well, we’ll just get ’em out from behind those walls.”
Wexler stepped forward. “How you gonna do that?’
Maybe he should call them chicks. After all this time they didn’t think he had a plan? “Will you mount up, huh? I’ll show you, c’mon.”
No one asked questions after that and as one entity, they moved to remove any signs of their camp and headed for the vehicles.
Teresa picked the cowboy hat off the front passenger seat of the car and pushed her errant ponytail out of her face. With the breeze it was in her eyes more often than not. She should have taken the time to braid it this morning.
Scott was down by the river since he declared he was not returning to Lancer bloodied up when some of his scrapes started seeping again. Teresa agreed since it would be easier than sneaking him into the house and Murdoch didn’t need to see his older son a mess.
Teresa walked around the front of the car chewing on her lip, reliving the fight she had seen. Scuffles and shoving matches she was familiar with, but all out fighting? That was a new experience and one would think an exciting one, but it left her feeling sick.
Shaking off the mood, she looked down the bank. “I like your new hat!”
Scott wrung out the rag he was using to wash up, straightened and climbed up the steep bank towards her.
Scooping up Scott’s jacket, the sound of a vehicle caught Teresa’s attention and she looked to see the Jeep, with Johnny driving. Beside her, Scott lowered the cloth he had been holding to his face and watched.
They took a couple of steps forward, but Johnny’s face was impassive through the glass of the windshield and it was impossible for Teresa to tamp down the flare of resentment. She didn’t know Johnny very well, but she expected… well, she expected more somehow.
Right now she was angry and couldn’t do anything about it. Her father’s voice was so clear in her head, If you can’t face a confrontation without anger, Kiddo, step back. Because once things are said, sorry doesn’t always cut it. Handing Scott his jacket, Teresa decided the brothers could hash this out themselves.
Johnny caught the look of resentment Teresa tossed his way and was grateful to see her walk back to the other car. There was enough to deal with without an angry fifteen-year-old girl in the mix.
Parking the Jeep, he leaned out the window. “I told you to stay out of it, didn’t I?”
Scott draped his jacket over his left arm. “Well, you did, anyway.”
Yes, he did, but there was no way this guy was going to get the why of it.
Johnny slid out of the car and walked around the front. “Well, if you want to get yourself killed, that’s your business.” He gestured to Scott’s face. “That’s quite the bruise you got.”
Johnny saw something in Scott’s eyes, just a brief flash and then it was gone. Anger? Disappointment? Before he could wrap another thought around it, pain exploded in his head. He tumbled over and over down the embankment, coming to a sliding stop before hitting the water. He shook his head to clear out the cobwebs.
Scott stood at the top of the bank. “I just couldn’t resist thanking you for your help… Brother.”
Brother. That son of a bitch! Johnny scrambled to his feet and ran back up the bank. “Don’t you call me brother because we share that old man’s blood!”
Johnny caught a glimpse of Teresa, looking on in open-mouthed astonishment. Screw it. He plowed into Scott and swung, sending him crashing into the tree trunk. Catching his breath, he can hear Teresa screaming.
Age old resentment swept over Johnny as Scott pushed himself off the tree. “You mean nothin’ to me!”
It felt good to square off against someone and Johnny wanted to pound his so-called brother into the ground.
“Stop it, stop it, you hear me!” Teresa slid down the bank.
Except there was a girl diving right into the middle of it. She had her hand on Scott’s left arm, but it didn’t look like he was going to back down, not if those balled fists were any indication.
And that was just fine with Johnny. Except… Teresa.
“What is the matter with you two? Brothers or not, Lancer has enough problems without this!”
Scott caved first. He lowered his hands and took a step towards him, breathing hard. “Look, I’m sorry.”
Who was he kidding? Johnny stared at the outstretched hand then turned on his heel, heading to the car. What the hell did they expect? Happiness and joy?
“Wait a minute.”
Opening the car door, Johnny looked over his shoulder to see Scott had followed him.
“We ought to be able to get along… after all, we both came here for the same reason.”
Johnny doubted that and pulled a twenty out of his pocket waving it in Scott’s face. “That’s why I came.”
Scott frowned and Johnny refused to be bothered by it. “The money?”
Johnny shoved the bill back in his jacket pocket and slid into the car. “What else?”
There was silence. “My mistake.”
It’s the way Scott turned from him that released the cork. Johnny glared after him. “Why do you think I came?” Scott turned back and Johnny let the resentment pour out of him. “For loyalty or love for Murdoch Lancer? You want to know what he did to my mother? He gave her the keys to the road one day and said ‘What’s your hurry?’ and ‘Just a minute, don’t forget Buster here.’ ”
Teresa ran up to the car. “That’s not true!”
Johnny didn’t care. He started the car and pulled past Scott, only Teresa ran alongside.
“That’s not true about Murdoch and your mother! He never made her leave. She left on her own.”
Irritated, Johnny braked. “Now look, you don’t know what you’re…”
“She ran off with somebody.”
Why would his mother lie?
Johnny bit back his thoughts on that bit of fiction and started the car forward again. Movement in the rear view mirror showed Scott was picking up his jacket and putting it on. Teresa stood there, just watching him. She had the gall to look affronted, standing there with her hands splayed on her hips.
Well, she didn’t know his mother.
“He was some kind of a freelance journalist or something. She just packed up and left with him.”
Johnny slammed on the brakes, furious. “Did he tell you that?”
“No, my dad told me. And it’s true!” Stubbornness written all over her face, Teresa came at him. “If anybody got screwed here, Johnny, it was Murdoch!”
She slapped a hand down on the car roof. “And there’s something else you should know…”
Johnny had enough. “Stand back, Teresa.” He moved the car forward, but her hand clamped on to his shoulder. He wouldn’t take the chance of hurting her, so he stopped.
“No, no, listen!” Her grip tightened. “When your dad wasn’t sure whether he’d live or die, I sat with him. And he kept saying your mother’s name, Johnny, asking for her! So if you want to hate him because he’s stubborn, or wrong-headed lots of the times, or proud, well, they’re…they’re faults. But don’t hate him for your mother, Johnny, because he loved her!”
Johnny didn’t have time to react to that as the distant blast of a horn grabbed their attention. A pickup came tearing down the road the blaring of the horn constant as it raced into Lancer. Teresa pulled away and Johnny stamped down on the accelerator. In the rearview mirror he saw Scott drive up to Teresa and she scrambled into the passenger side.
The pickup tore down the long drive and slammed on the brakes sliding sideways. A figure dived out as Johnny and Scott pulled in behind him.
Murdoch had limped out at the first sound of the horn. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
Cipriano and Desidro stood behind Murdoch. Johnny, Scott and Teresa got out of the car as Ramiro started speaking in rapid Spanish, huffing out the words. “I drove… I see smoke… at Caspar’s place. I drove over here… what I see, Senor!” He collapsed against Murdoch.
Caspar & Maria Ruiz’s Home
As Scott drove them to the Ruiz’s, Murdoch sat in the passenger seat and suffered through doubts about bringing his sons to Lancer. He could admit that he used the situation as an impetus to contact his sons. Well, in Johnny’s case it was a matter of timing and he was grateful that his younger son had been found when he had. But the attacks seemed to be escalating. If one of them should get hurt…
Murdoch glanced back to Ramiro in the back seat and his worry grew. This state of agitation was unlike him, and if he wasn’t mistaken, the older man was in shock. What could cause…?
His thoughts stuttered to a stop as they came in the drive. Murdoch could see a man hanging by his feet from the support beam in the barn, swaying slightly.
He heard Ramiro mutter a prayer, but couldn’t take his eyes off the scene in front of him. Flashing lights were everywhere. Vehicles from local police, state police, fire department, and the coroner were in attendance.
A local cop stopped them well away from the swarm of uniformed people.
Scott had the window down and the officer leaned in. “Mr. Lancer, what are you doing here?”
Murdoch leaned towards the driver’s side window. “Valerie, Ramiro is the one who called 911.”
Valerie glanced to the back seat. “Hey, Ramiro, there’ll be some questions for you.”
They exited the SUV. Johnny and a few others of the staff left the other car to gather by the police barrier. Like Murdoch they were silent as they watched the authorities take down Caspar’s body. A gurney from the coroner truck was headed toward the house. It could only mean that it was meant for Maria.
Murdoch had known Caspar and Maria for years, and now he wondered if it was knowing him that had caused their deaths.
Valerie placed a gentle hand on Ramiro’s shoulder and led him off to the side to tell what he knew.
He wasn’t aware of Cipriano arriving until the man stood beside him. “The trail was clear – they drove into the San Benitos.”
Murdoch had the sense that everything was coming to a head. “Desidro?”
The younger man jogged over to him. “Yes?”
“Stay with here with Ramiro, and make sure he’s okay. He’ll need a ride home.”
“Will do, Mr. Lancer.”
Murdoch turned away. The anger would come and he would hold onto it, but right now he felt too old and too beat up to do anything. Friends were killed, his own life and those around him at risk. He had brought his sons – strangers – home. He should feel good about that, but he only felt selfish and guilty.
Johnny looked back at the controlled chaos of the crime scene once more before heading back to the car. Pardee wouldn’t have left anything behind for the cops to tag this killing on him—Day was making his move and wouldn’t stop until he had what he wanted.
Mind racing, Scott tore the tags off one his new shirts and slid into it. Pardee wouldn’t stop with what he and his men had done at the Ruiz’s. Socks, he needed socks. Scott took a thick pair out of the drawer and slammed it shut. He tugged them on, hopping from one foot to the other.
Buttoning up his shirt, he went to his closet.
A scrape sounded across the threshold. “Don’t you think we should talk about this?”
Scott glanced over his shoulder as he continued to button up his shirt and tuck it into his jeans, not surprised to find Johnny standing in his doorway. “We can talk on the way, while we’re after them.”
Johnny took a couple steps into the room. “Did you ever think that’s exactly what they want us to do?”
Scott buckled his belt. “The thought did cross my mind.” Keeping his back to his brother, he pulled his 9mm out of the closet. He needed to talk to Murdoch about locking it in the gun cabinet. “But that trail could also lead us to their camp.” He was wasting time having this conversation with his brother. Johnny was doubting him and he didn’t have time to set his brother straight, nor was he willing to talk about his past experiences.
Johnny closed in on him. “Unless they double back through Morro Coyo and hit the house while we’re miles away somewhere chasin’ tracks.”
And there was nothing like having someone tell you what you already knew.
Scott heard the thumping of Murdoch’s cane before he entered the other doorway. Cipriano followed.
Murdoch gestured outside. “The men are all mounted and waiting.” He tipped his head to his foreman. “You said you wanted to talk to Cipriano.”
Ignoring Johnny, Scott pulled his jacket from the bedpost, and tucked it over his arm “Cipriano, you said their tracks led to the San Benitos Mountains.” He buttoned up his shirt cuffs. “Do you know them well?”
“Like my hand.” Cipriano’s confidence was reassuring for what Scott had in mind.
Scott slid into his jacket. “Is there a pass up there?”
“A steep one, and narrow.”
“Can you find it?”
“With my eyes shut.”
With that, Scott’s nebulous plan became solid. “Good.” He walked to the small table to pick up his hat, turning to Johnny. “Ready?”
Scott couldn’t tell if Johnny was disgusted, frustrated, or just thought Scott was an idiot.
“Do you know what’s goin’ to happen up there with a couple of treehuggers and a tin soldier?”
Looked like idiot was winning out. Murdoch didn’t look in mood to debate the issue any more than Scott did.
“That sun’ll be goin’ down in about half an hour.” Johnny turned around to face Scott. “And you’re goin’ to be stumblin’ around up there in the dark, blowin’ each other’s heads off.”
Scott knew he should take the time to talk with his brother, but there wasn’t any to spare. He turned to Murdoch. “You call the tune, what do you say?”
Murdoch looked at them both. “I say you go.”
Scott heard Johnny’s muted frustration, but ignored it as he headed to the door. “Cipriano, tell the men we’ll be right there.”
Cipriano nodded. “Will do.” He turned and left, his heavy stride echoing after him.
Scott turned back to Johnny when he reached the doorway. “Coming?”
Johnny wasn’t looking anywhere but the floor, and that was enough of an answer. His brother didn’t have any faith that he knew what he was doing. Scott got it, because he didn’t understand his brother at all.
Leaving, Scott put on his hat. Someday, maybe they will have a chance to figure it out.
You mean nothin’ to me ran in a continuous loop in his mind.
Murdoch studied his younger son, trying to figure out what he was thinking. “Are you going or not?”
The tone captured Johnny’s attention. “That an order?”
“There’s only one man who is going to run this place…”
Johnny interrupted, his frustration evident. “Pardee is luring you out into the open! He’ll either cut your staff to shreds up in that pass or go for you in this house while nobody’s here. Now you’ve got one chance, fort up here and wait.”
“Until I find Pardee.”
And that was the sticking point for Murdoch. “Maybe you found him already.”
Johnny’s face went still. “Well, go on.”
“What were you doing in Morro Coyo?” Murdoch wasn’t sure what he was watching for. Johnny blinked and looked away before turning back to him
“Is that what you think of me?”
They haven’t known each other but a few days, and Murdoch had promised himself he wouldn’t lie to his sons. Avoid things, yes. Lie, no. “I don’t know what to think of you.”
“Think what you like,” Johnny said, and headed towards the door.
“Where are you going?”
Johnny slowed his walk, but didn’t look at Murdoch. “I never was much good at takin’ orders.”
Murdoch watched Johnny leave and wondered if he would see him again.
San Benitos Mountains
Cipriano remained by Scott’s side as they headed into the San Benitos. He was comfortable with the young man’s ability to lead the staff Cipriano had selected. Only those who had used firearms in the military or had experience with other weapons were with them.
Scott scanned the area before turning to him. “Cipriano, you’re with me.” He looked back at the men behind him. “The rest of you follow a hundred yards behind.”
Cipriano followed close behind, his eyes surveying the terrain, his thoughts circling around Murdoch Lancer sons. He didn’t know the background of either of them, and could only determine their personalities by their actions.
One thing was for certain: it was a poor time for them to get to know their father.
Coley watched the men ride across the stream. “Well, there’s eight of them.”
Pardee grinned. “That doesn’t leave too much at Lancer, now does it?”
Pardee moved off the rock with Coley following behind. They headed back to the rest of the men waiting on dirt bikes and ATV’s. If they timed this right, they could hit Lancer quick and hard, taking out Murdoch Lancer. His son would be next on that short list.
Their employer was impatient to see results.
Pardee pulled his gloves and helmet. “Baines, call the rest of the men and tell them we’ll meet them in town.” He looked around. “Move out quietly. They’re just on the other side of this ridge.”
Scott crawled over the rough rock to peek over the edge to the valley below. Recognizing the men he had fought with at Baldemerro’s, he took Pardee for the man who led the way, pushing his dirt bike.
No one was remaining behind and Scott took that as a sign Pardee was going for the last push to take Lancer. They still didn’t know for what purpose and that thought irritated him.
Scott scrambled back down the waiting men. “All right, we can head back.”
Murdoch watched the hypnotic flames in the fireplace, the glass of scotch warming in his hand. The sound of soft footfalls alerted him to someone entering the room.
Turning, he felt his leg burn, but felt vulnerable and exposed with his back to the room. “Who’s there?”
Teresa came into view. “It’s me.”
“I suppose it would do no good if I told you to go to bed?”
An arched brow lifted, an act so reminiscent of Paul his heart thumped painfully with the reminder of their loss.
“I’ll fix the fire.” Suiting actions to words Teresa picked up the poker and crouched down before the fire, prodding the logs. “You’re thinking about your sons out there, aren’t you?”
Murdoch couldn’t stop thinking of them. “They’re strangers to me.” Teresa stood up with such ease that Murdoch felt a pang of jealousy.
She picked up a blanket. “It’ll take a little time. But once they get to know you…”
“They’ll stop hating me?”
Teresa rolled her eyes. “You’re such guys.” She spread the blanket over his legs. “They don’t hate you. They want to love you.”
Murdoch leaned his head back against the chair. “I ought to get myself a dog.” He looked up at her; she smiled back at him. “They don’t answer back.”
Teresa settled down by his legs and rested her arms on them: A routine that began a few weeks after Paul’s death. He welcomed the closeness and stroked her hair. It was a marvel at this age that she allowed it.
“You miss your dad, don’t you?”
“Yes – but I’ve got you.” It was so simple of a statement, but one he felt in the solar plexus.
“Yes, you have. You surely have.”
Johnny eased himself out the door, frosted mug in hand. The air outside was no better than within the Buckhorn. His left hand twitched against the light pole. It was impossible to relax with the musty odor of stale beer and cigarette smoke wafting out of the bar behind him and the sweatiness of the men standing beside him. The smells crept into his brain and tapped on it, making his head ache. He gripped the half empty mug tighter.
A screaming-red Chevy rumbled down the road. Day Pardee pulled up, flashed a smile and cut the engine. The longer Johnny stayed here the more uncomfortable he felt. There was no way to avoid a confrontation.
Day slid out of the car and gave the car door a negligent kick to shut it. “John, you make up your mind yet?” Pardee placed his foot on the curb and leaned on his knee.
Johnny wiped the moisture from the rim of his mug with the edge of his thumb. “Yeah, I made up my mind.”
“We’ll be movin’ out soon.” Pardee studied him under the brim of his hat. “I figure we’ll get breakfast at the Lancer Preserve.”
Johnny leaned against the light pole and took a long sip of the beer, giving a curt nod. Pardee stepped up on the porch and brushed past him, walking to the bar’s front door.
Johnny heard Coley talking behind him. “He wants in?”
“That’s right,” Pardee said.
Coley lowered his voice, but Johnny still heard the fat man’s reply. “I’m not so sure I trust him.”
Johnny could feel their eyes on him. Assessing, wondering. He had a sick feeling the confrontation would come sooner rather than later.
Lancer Wildlife Preserve
His horse began to pull ahead of the small group and Scott felt a surge of excitement, even though he knew the danger had just begun.
He reined the chestnut to a stop and turned to face the men before him. “All right, I want men on the roof.” He jabbed a finger in the air. “There – and there. I need some on the front portico, and a few around the back of the house and the patio. Move out!”
Picking up on his mood, the horse began to rear a bit. He pulled in the reins and brought it down to a rhythmic prancing. It wouldn’t be long before Pardee showed. Scott looked around at the mélange of men, weapons and animals. They’d be ready—but he needed to talk to Johnny about strategy to cover the house when Pardee showed—where was he?
Hacienda Great Room
Murdoch met him at the door. “What happened?”
Scott stepped down into the room and hefted the rifle in his hand. “Nothing,” he said, walking to the table, “yet.”
He fingered the hunting gun’s heavy stock in his hand, wishing it were a standard issue assault rifle. The lighter M16 with a telescoping lens would be perfect for this scenario.
Scott set the weapon down and turned to sit on the edge of the table. “We rode just far enough to make them think we’d taken the bait, then we cut back through Cipriano’s pass.”
The smell of coffee preceded Teresa entering the room and he was more than ready to accept a cup from her. “Pardee should be along soon. It’ll be daylight in a few minutes, we should get ready.”
Teresa looked worried but not afraid—good girl. She swung her eyes to Murdoch looking to him for direction. Murdoch looked resigned, if that was the correct word. Or perhaps—older—somehow.
His father gave an audible sigh. “Honey, get my rifle.”
Scott glanced around the room. “Where’s Johnny?”
Murdoch looked at him, his eyes darkening a little. “Gone.”
The mug moving halfway to his mouth stopped. “Gone where?”
No matter how gruff Murdoch’s answer was, it made a difference to his father that Johnny wasn’t here. He watched the man hitch towards the door, his limp more noticeable than Scott had seen it before.
He looked down into his cup and swirled the coffee around. If he was being truthful, Johnny’s disappearance made a difference to him, too. But for a different reason. Niggling in the back of his mind was the unacknowledged desire to get to know his brother, as much as Scott wanted to know their father.
It didn’t look like he would have that chance.
Lancer Wildlife Preserve
Lancer seemed bigger, more spread out from up on the rise. And just as breath-taking. He felt a familiar clench in his belly—something that told him this was worth the fight. The feeling grew stronger when he saw Pardee on a motorcycle and Coley on the ATV, drawing zigzag lines through green pasture. The rest of the men came up on motorcycles, belching out gas fumes.
There was no way in hell he’d let Pardee take this land.
Pardee shut off his engine and directed the men. “Carl, when we get down there, you go through this path and take ’em from the front. I’ll take the rest of ’em and go in from the rear. Johnson, you get ’em ready, and spread ’em out.”
Most of the men dismounted while few drove off to do Pardee’s bidding. A careful man, Day checked his gun as he headed down the slope to a gnarled tree trunk where Johnny was standing. Coley followed like a pup looking for a treat.
“Day.” He kept the single word enveloped in a soft drawl.
Pardee turned to him. “What you want, Madrid?”
Johnny shook his head and smiled a bit. He fingered the torn front pocket on his jeans. “It’s not Madrid.”
His fingers stopped pulling on the ragged fabric and he looked up. “This is my land. I want you to get off.”
Pardee looked over his shoulder at him, his mouth open in amazement. “Your land?”
Johnny held on to that puzzled look. The wheels were turning in Pardee’s head and Day had never been stupid.
“You’re not a Lancer, John.” Pardee’s head angled for a look of pure speculation. “Or are you?”
Coley moved from the side, his gun drawn. Johnny feinted left and pulled out his weapon. Turning, he shot Coley and pumped a round in Pardee’s direction. Both men went down. Coley toppled over, sliding down the embankment while Pardee fell back against the tree root.
Johnny sprinted for the motorcycles.
Settling on the seat of the nearest bike, he kicked at the few other cycles around him, sending them crashing to the ground. He gunned the engine and took off in a spitting peel of turf and rubber.
Despite the blood roaring in his ears, Johnny heard Pardee yelling out to his men. He hadn’t killed Day after all—and that was a mistake.
He spared a look over his shoulder. The slope was a beehive of activity. Shots rang out, one whistling close to his face. Pardee’s pack of dogs would go for his throat, given the chance. If the trail was straighter, Johnny could have shaken them off his lead. As it was, the pack was gaining.
Johnny pulled out his Beretta and fired off random shots. One of the men was plucked from his cycle and landed into the ditch with a splash. It only seemed to enrage the rest and they pushed closer now. If he could only make it to the edge of the fence line… He felt a sudden sting to his side and pain bloomed in his chest. Looking down, he saw a band of red against the white of his shirt on the left side. Shit! Adrenaline kicked in and he goosed the motorcycle’s engine.
Despite the lack of sleep, Scott felt alert as he paced the great room. He performed a function check on his rifle and verified the site. Loading one magazine, he stuck another into his belt band. Sensing his father’s quizzical look at him, he shrugged. “You pick up things.” He put the weapon down and picked up his father’s rifle to do the same review.
The sound was hardly noticeable at first, among the hustle of men and movement of equipment, but it was insistent and growing louder. Gunfire sounded. Scott leapt up and ran towards the picture window, yanking aside the heavy drapes. A pack—of men—was on scent and moving fast across the pasture toward the house. It was now or never.
Scott grabbed his rifle and lobbed the second one to Murdoch. “Here they come. Teresa, call 911.”
The few men left at Lancer hurried into position. Scott emerged out of the French doors and headed up the outside staircase. Murdoch followed at his slower pace.
Climbing to the balcony, Scott looked out and saw several motorcycles approaching the house. Murdoch situated himself on the landing below with two other men and readied his rifle.
“Hold your fire. They’re still out of range!” Scott looked again at the riders; one was far in front of the others. Was it Pardee? “Easy now. Here comes the first one!” He cocked his rifle and raised it to his shoulder, Murdoch did the same.
“Wait – hold your fire!” Murdoch lowered his rifle. “It’s Johnny!”
Scott pointed his own weapon up and waited, watching the leader take his motorcycle over a low-lying white fence. The back wheel hit the railing and wobbled. The rider straightened on landing and gunned it forward.
A hail of gunfire erupted from the men on motorcycles. A single shot pierced the air and Johnny’s bike shuddered and flew sideways when the back tire blew. He careened across the courtyard before sliding to a sickening stop near the large oak tree. Johnny rolled once…two times, then lay still.
“Johnny!” Teresa’s scream startled Scott into action. He jumped down the stairs, two at a time, reaching Murdoch. He was about to hurry past, when his father’s big hand clamped around his arm.
“Scott, it’s no use.” Misery etched across his face, Murdoch lowered his head. “I don’t understand what that boy was trying to do.”
Scott hesitated and looked towards Johnny.
Teresa bumped his hip in an effort to get to Murdoch, tears welling up in her eyes. “He was coming back to us. You know that, don’t you?”
Scott was wasting time. He shrugged off Murdoch’s hand and rushed down the stairs continuing out into the yard, only stopping at the archway. Glancing again at Johnny, he raised his rifle, sighting on the man who shot out the motorcycle tire. He couldn’t afford to miss. There was just enough time; he squeezed off a shot and was rewarded when the man fell face first into the dirt.
A splatter of bullets pounded the area around him. One of them found its way into the man on the landing beside Murdoch and he tumbled down the stairs. Soaked in sweat, Scott lowered his weapon and moved behind the wall. A set of stairs took him up to a higher vantage point.
He sprayed the oncoming motorcycles as they zipped in and out of the courtyard. Then, to his right, burst the sound of gunfire. Turning his attention to the sniper edged up against the wall, he fired once and the man spun, falling to the ground.
Bright muzzle flashes were everywhere, adding to the cacophony of the engines and yelling. Somewhere in the distance, he heard the wail of a police siren. He caught his breath and looked around. Pardee’s head and shoulders poked out between two tree trunks then were gone. At least most of the men were on foot now.
Murdoch was crouched on the landing, still shooting. There was no sign of Teresa, he hoped she made it back into the hacienda through the balcony window.
His eyes swept through the compound, trying to find Pardee again. Once the big dog was taken out of commission, he hoped the rest of the curs would follow. His view settled on Johnny. A feeling of regret clawed at him when he looked at the still, white face. He checked the courtyard with renewed vigor.
A movement of color brought his eye to bear on Johnny again. His hand moved! A long shadow crossed his brother’s form. One of Pardee’s men, carrying a pistol, stepped over him to fire at one of the staff. Johnny lifted his arm up and fired his weapon, bringing the man down.
Scott took for the stairs when he saw Johnny fire. He met his father at the bottom.
“Scott, your brother!” Murdoch said.
Scott cursed himself for not seeing if Johnny was alive right away. His training had slipped. “Cover me. I’m going out after him.” He ran into the melee of men and gunfire, squeezing off shot after shot, until he reached his brother.
Transferring the rifle to his left hand, he leaned down with the right. Cipriano hurried out to help him. Together they dragged Johnny to the relative protection of an oak tree and propped him against the trunk. Scott kneeled beside him when Cipraino peeled off to rejoin the fight.
There was a bright red stain on Johnny’s lower left side, growing in size. But at least he was alive.
Scott raised his rifle and fired another shot from his kneel. The tree afforded the basic cover he and Johnny needed, but there was nothing safe about it—he had no desire to get caught in a crossfire. He could see Murdoch still crouched on the landing. A flash of blue behind his father told him Murdoch had some extra help. Squinting against the rising sun, he saw Teresa reloading an extra gun.
A red-stained finger tapped on his knee. “I think we’d better get out of here, huh?”
Johnny looked rough. Road rash dotted his chin and cheek. The shoulder of his shirt was torn away revealing more scrapes and bruising. The way he held his arm close to his side said his brother more than likely had a few broken ribs in addition to the bullet wound. Scott exhaled and looked for an escape.
A hard slap to his knee this time. “Look out!”
Pardee was making his way just beyond a small copse of trees. Slippery bastard. He stood and worked his way around the tree trunk for a better angle. Sighting on the man’s chest, he squeezed off a shot when Pardee took aim. The mercenary staggered and fell.
Scott heard footsteps running close by. Around the side of the house, someone yelled out.
“Pardee’s down. Move out!”
A man Scott recognized from the general store signaled a retreat and they began running. A few scuttled for the downed motorcycles and two sprinted off into the brush through a break in the fence. Murdoch’s rifle shots encouraged them on their way. He cocked an ear to the sounds coming from the road. Sirens were closing in. Scott could see the flashing lights of police cars and a fire truck.
He inhaled, the odor of the fight filling his lungs. With his energy flagging, Scott glanced down and saw Johnny looking at him.
“That was good shootin’ “.
The sound of squealing tires and crunch of gravel reverberated throughout the courtyard.
Johnny looked over at the mass of vehicles lining up outside the Lancer fence and hitched himself higher up on the tree trunk. “Looks like the cavalry finally showed up.”
Scott smiled. “They’ve been here all along.”
“That Army unit I was in… it was the 83rd Cavalry… ah, Airborne Cavalry.”
“We’d just about given up on you, John.”
Johnny’s face broke into a wide smile. “Well, you had your plan, and I had mine.”
With an arm wrapped around his middle, Johnny struggled to his knees then to his feet.
Scott grabbed for his shoulder when Johnny tilted to the side. “Take your time, take your time.”
Johnny groaned and shook his head. “I can make it.”
An eyebrow raised, Scott looked over to Murdoch and Teresa standing beside the archway.
Shrugging off his hand, Johnny took a tentative step towards the house. “I can make it.”
Additional ambulances and paramedics had arrived to assist with the wounded. A couple of paramedics were headed their way, no doubt seeing the bloodstain down his brother’s side. Scott signaled them behind Johnny’s back to follow them. They did so, bringing a gurney waiting for its load.
He stayed close, transferring his rifle from one hand to the other. One more wobbly step… then another. Johnny’s leg started to collapse. Scott dropped the weapon, catching his brother as he slumped forward. Using Johnny’s momentum, he swung his brother around to land into the gurney. Helping hands made quick work of strapping him in.
Murdoch and Teresa arrived as the paramedics ran through Johnny’s vitals.
“Anyone riding with him?” The one paramedic asked without stopping his ministrations to Johnny’s wound.
“Yes, I’m his father.”
“Good, the docs will need more info.”
The pained expression on Murdoch’s face said it all.
It was the numb, disconnected feeling that informed Johnny he was loaded with some very good pharmaceuticals, and he had the distinct impression he should be grateful. The last thing he remembered was that everything hurt and passing out was a relief.
Blinking his eyes open he became aware of whispering that wasn’t so quiet, even though the speakers sounded like they tried hard not to have their voices carry. Irritating – like a bug buzzing in his ear.
Johnny peeled his tongue from the roof of his mouth and forced a few words out. “Someone tell ‘em to shut it.”
“Sleeping Beauty awakens.” The ever-so-dry Boston accent could only be one person.
Squinting, Johnny spotted Scott leaning against the door jamb, looking out into the hall. “You shut it, too.” His brother grinned, but his attention was caught up with the commotion beyond Johnny’s room.
Movement beside him brought his attention to Teresa, who had an elbow near his and was resting her chin in her palm.
“Good thing you woke up.” Teresa flicked her eyes to the hallway. “Murdoch is out there demanding to know why you haven’t.”
That explained the buzzing.
“How long I been out?”
Teresa’s brows furrowed. “Scott?”
“About eighteen hours. Longer than the doctors expected.” Scott glanced over his shoulder. “Suppose we should let everyone know.”
“Suppose so.” Teresa gave a long sigh. “Don’t wait so long next time, Johnny.”
“I hope there is no next time.” Johnny shifted and decided that it was a lousy idea and should be avoided.
“Well, after you swooned – ”
Johnny glared at Scott, who just grinned.
“Teresa, did he or did he not swoon?”
Teresa nodded without removing her chin from its perch. “Like a heroine in a gothic romance novel. It was very graceful.”
“And since we were there and you were too busy falling over to have a vote – “
Murdoch strode in.
The relief that swept over Murdoch’s face startled Johnny and he felt several assumptions take a nosedive into obscurity. Awareness struck with all the subtlety of the proverbial sledgehammer and he took a good look at the three people gathered in his hospital room.
Teresa wasn’t an indolent teenager and that should have been his first clue. Eyes half-lidded and the weary slump made him wonder how long she had been sitting in that chair. Scott’s lean wasn’t just a casual pose. Eighteen hours. He wondered if Scott had slept in that time. The rumpled clothes made Johnny suspect that he hadn’t.
Murdoch looked plain worn down. The older man may have walked with a cane, but there was vitality about the man that was missing today.
A reasonable conclusion was these three relative strangers had stayed with him.
Murdoch came to stand beside Teresa, and looked down at Johnny, who thought it a definite unfair advantage since it made Murdoch look eight feet tall. “How are you feeling?”
“Only hurts when I move.” Johnny narrowed his eyes when Scott opened his mouth. “Don’t say it.”
A closed-mouth smile was the only reply.
Murdoch gave a heavy sigh. “Johnny, when I said arms, legs and guts I didn’t mean that in the literal sense.”
“I’ve been told I’m an overachiever.”
Teresa rolled her eyes. “Great.”
Scott laid both hands on the footboard of the bed, speaking with such sincerity that it made Johnny’s teeth itch. “No, no Teresa. Think of the role model Johnny could be for you. I’m sure he can teach you that trick of jumping the fence. It was very action-hero of him.”
“I’ll be out of this bed – ”
Teresa laughed cutting Johnny’s tirade off and Scott winked. Okay, he’d cut Scott a little slack for that action-hero comment. A little.
“While I do appreciate the outcome, I could stand to see a little less heroics – from both of you.” Murdoch laid a hand on Johnny’s shoulder and he felt the warmth of it radiate through the thin hospital gown.
“What happened?” The situation had gone a little wild west and there had to be some ramifications. People were killed, and Johnny intended to ask how a bunch of so-called tree huggers could hold off trained mercenaries like that.
“A few of Pardee’s men eluded the police, but most were caught and are being held at the county jail. The local police have gathered our statements and only await yours to close our part of it.”
Johnny yawned. “Any charges pending our way?”
“I think it unlikely at this point. One, our local police are only too happy to have Pardee out of the picture, and two, this was a case of self defense. Everyone with Lancer is current with their gun licenses, including the both of you.” Murdoch yawned, followed by Teresa. Johnny fought the urge to do so again and he saw Scott’s jaw tighten.
“Go home.” Johnny closed his eyes. “You can catch me up more tomorrow.”
“Sleep well.” The hand on his shoulder gave a squeeze and was gone. Teresa’s hand, a contrast of soft and strong wrapped around his for a brief moment while there was a whap across his toes that signaled Scott’s good-bye.
Johnny opened his eyes to see Murdoch and Teresa disappear out the door, but Scott looked over his shoulder.
Johnny could move his hand and raised his middle finger in a salute. “Action hero?”
Scott grinned and gave a half-assed military salute back, but Johnny could hear his soft laughter as he slipped out of the room.
Randolph, Attorney At Law
The small conference table had enough shine to reflect the five faces of the people sitting around it. It allowed for Murdoch to study his sons’ faces. Not quite believing that they had reached this point.
“I’m sorry, Murdoch. Garrett has the money and the means to retain custody of Scott. We have to wait and appeal this decision.” Jerry closed the thick file on his desk.
Maybe that was the best. Shattered by the loss of Catherine, Murdoch didn’t know how to be the father to a newborn. Nor did he feel he deserved to have Scott with him, but he wanted his son…
Numerous appeals hadn’t resulted in Murdoch gaining custody, though Jerry Randolph had come close a time or two. Not once had he been allowed to see Scott.
Looking at his older son now, Murdoch wondered if Scott was as relaxed as he appeared listening to Jerry as he explained what the partnership paperwork entailed. Murdoch didn’t have a clue what went on in his son’s mind. The young man hadn’t asked as to why it was his grandfather who had raised him.
And Murdoch wasn’t ready to venture into the territory Harlan Garret had created there.
“It’s been weeks!” Murdoch paced around the office. “Someone must have seen them. Johnny’s face is plastered everywhere.”
“As much as it pains me to say this: Maria planned this out. She’s probably changed the way they looked and their identities to get past airports, bus stations, everything else. Murdoch…” Jerry looked out the office window. “She’s likely left the country with him.”
Murdoch collapsed into the chair. “How did I miss this? What did I do?”
“I don’t think you missed anything. I think Maria excelled at hiding her actions.”
And lying. Murdoch knew it would take a long time for Johnny to get past the lies he had lived with for so long. That it was his mother who had told him the lies, would make it doubly so.
Johnny looked preoccupied, to the point of not paying attention to Jerry. This son he could remember cuddling at night, and had a memory of him that was difficult to reconcile with the grown up version.
A soft touch to his arm brought him back to the here and now, and he looked down at Teresa’s reassuring smile.
“Sign and initial each of the tagged pages, please.” Jerry handed the pen and multi-paged document to Scott.
Scott set to it, reading some parts as he went along, and didn’t look up until he had finished signing the last page. He flipped the pages back, set the pen on top, and slid it to Murdoch.
The half-smile and raised eyebrows didn’t help Murdoch understand his son’s thoughts any better, but he was beginning to suspect that Scott shared his mother’s irreverent sense of humor.
Having read through the agreement numerous times, Murdoch didn’t hesitate to sign and initial where needed. It wasn’t until he signed off on the final page that he took in the last unsigned name.
“Jerry, I should have told you that last name should read John Madrid.” Murdoch looked to Johnny. “Not Lancer.”
“That will require some significant changes, Murdoch. There are already issues with Johnny’s identity that need to be resolved.”
“He’s gone by that name for years, he shouldn’t have to – ”
“No…” Johnny glanced at Murdoch before turning his attention to Jerry. “Let it stand.”
Eyes met and held, but Murdoch didn’t have any clearer idea what Johnny was thinking than he did with Scott. Heart pounding, he slid the document and pen across the table to his younger son.
Johnny glanced to Scott, who leaned back into his chair and Murdoch felt the hint of a challenge cross between them. A quirk of a smile and Johnny skimmed through the document twirling the pen between his fingers. His eyes flicked to Scott before he started to write.
Teresa’s hand tightened on Murdoch’s arm, and he could feel the happiness radiating off of her. He didn’t stop his own smile.
Shutting down Pardee and his mercenaries had been step one. Step two was the partnership agreement. Step three was learning how to live in the same household with two other strong-willed men, but he called the tune.
Murdoch had a feeling he would need to change the pitch now and then.
~ end ~
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